25/04/2016

Puzzling

Both of Bioware's most recent releases for SWTOR have contained puzzle elements. In chapter eleven, you had to find the right panels to shoot in order to progress past a forcefield, and this month's Alliance alert is pretty much one big puzzle to solve.

Both prompted similar reactions in me: First I was startled by the unexpected obstacle in my way, then delighted that it was something different from the norm. Then I got a bit annoyed when I couldn't figure out the solution quickly enough. I eventually made it past the forcefield myself, but for the companion mission I ended up looking up a hint online once I'd been stuck for a while.

This got me thinking about puzzles in SWTOR in general. I don't actually recall seeing a whole lot of them in the base game. The first one I remember encountering is during the interlude in the first chapter of the trooper story where you have to deactivate some laser beams in the right order to get to the middle of a room. A fair few datacrons have a puzzle aspect to them as well, but I didn't really bother with them on my first playthrough.

While levelling alts, I remember encountering the heroic mission Shadow Spawn on Dromund Kaas, which requires you to use the runes on a dark altar in the right order, and you figure out the correct order by following the lines of the Sith code. If you don't know them, they are engraved on the runes as well (and show up on their tooltip if you hover over them in your mission item inventory).


On Republic side, Traken-4's Legacy stands out, a former area quest on Balmorra, which requires you to solve a "lights out" puzzle on a three by three grid, which I don't know how to do to this day, but fortunately you can find automated solvers for that kind of thing online.


The operations were the biggest surprise in terms of puzzle aspects, because personally I'd never seen that kind of thing in large group content before. First there were the ancient pylons in Eternity Vault, which feature little combat but require you to figure out the fastest solution to a small puzzle before the fight. Then there was the Fabricator droid in Karagga's Palace, who required several members of your ops group to play Towers of Hanoi. In subsequent operations the "puzzle bosses" were toned down, but an aspect of problem-solving before the fight remained present for a while, from Colonel Vorgath's minefield in Explosive Conflict to Operator's colours in Terror from Beyond and Olok the Shadow's droids in Scum and Villainy. It's only with the Oricon operations that the notion of "puzzle bosses" seemingly came to an end.


In solo and small group content however, Bioware has continued to throw puzzles at us at irregular intervals. The Black Hole featured more than one daily that required a bit of puzzling. The whole Theoretika section of the HK-51 quest line stands out as a particularly memorable example of requiring brains over brawn. The Shroud quest line asked you to solve problems in ways other than fighting as well. Kuat Drive Yards has that ship-building scenario where you get a bonus for figuring out the little logic puzzle and choosing the right components. The Yavin quest line has the mission in the cave where you have to click on the right rune to activate the holocrons. On Ziost there is that short bit where you need to deactivate some panels to be able to run through a pool of water without being electrocuted. And now in KotFE we have the two examples mentioned above.


Do I like these puzzles? I think for the most part I do, but sometimes they've also caused me frustration. I generally like them in group content, because you can pool your resources and figure things out together. (Like when it comes to the aforementioned Traken-4 mission - the first time I ran into it, I was questing with a friend, and while I got annoyed with the puzzle, he enjoyed figuring it out and eventually got it done for both of us.) In ops, the puzzle bosses generally give one or two people the chance to shine with specialised knowledge without requiring everyone to be good at puzzles, though it can be very painful when you end up in a pug where nobody knows how to handle the puzzle aspect.

In what comes as a bit of a surprise to myself, I'm more likely to find puzzles annoying in solo content. It's probably because that's often the content that's focused on progressing the story, and it's annoying to hit a wall there just because you can't figure something out. Also, I'm generally more likely to get annoyed if several puzzles are strung together into one big puzzle, such as on the Theoretika or in the newest Alliance alert mission. I can generally appreciate a single puzzle inserted into a mission at random, though it can still sometimes feel a bit out of place simply because there aren't that many of them in game, so it's always a bit unexpected when instead of shooting things or talking to people, you suddenly find yourself hunting around the environment for the right thing to click or sifting through flavour text for hints. But if several of them show up in a row, it's even more likely that I won't be able to figure something out and will grow tired of the whole thing after a short while.

Do you like puzzles in your MMO experience?

21/04/2016

KotFE Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 9: The Alliance

We're finally there, discussing the last of the nine chapters that KotFE originally released with! Soon I'll be able to start covering the "new" stuff. But first, let's talk about that Alliance - as usual, spoilers abound.



After the big showdown in the last chapter in which you got wounded or drained one way or another, it's time for some rest on the planet Odessen, where Lana wants you to lead the newly formed Alliance against Arcann, consisting of splinter groups from both the Republic and Empire. I can't help but wonder when she had the time to put all of this together, considering that you were only out cold for two days and before the battle, interest in any possible Alliance still seemed tenuous. Oh well, you don't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Odessen features gorgeous landscapes full of mountains and forests and it's a shame that not more of it is accessible for day-to-day gameplay. It's also super special because the Force is strong on it, yet both light and dark are perfectly balanced here (or so Lana claims).

There are members of both factions already about, seemingly working together. For some reason you have to hijack a giant drill to get everyone's attention. You'd think that with everyone making such a big deal about how you have to be at the head of this Alliance, someone would have been able to call ahead. When people are gathering up to look what the racket is all about, you get the option to hold either an "inspiring" or an "oppressive" speech - I haven't noticed this choice making any major difference, but either way it's used as an opportunity to show some shots of your new subjects working on building up the base some more.

Up next: Theron Shan arrives! If, like me, you preferred him over Lana in the previous story arcs, this is a bit of a "finally" moment, considering how much attention she's already been given. He also has a little something for you: He found your old ship. I always feel strangely emotional during this scene, finally getting a bit of my old class identity back.

After this, he wants to talk to you inside the base, where he introduces you to the four "specialists" that will overlook different parts of your Alliance. There's Doctor Oggurobb, the Hutt scientist whom Republic players know from Makeb and who's heading the science department; Bey'wan Aygo, who led the Republic in its fight for Kuat back in the day, does the Republic voice-overs for GSF and is now responsible for the military side of things; Hylo Visz, an apparently quite popular Mirialan smuggler that has had her own forum avatar since launch but hadn't actually been seen in game before (though she comes up in Gault's companion story); and Sana-rae, a Voss Mystic that will oversee all things Force-related.


After the introductions, Doctor Oggurobb asks you to see him in his lab. When you talk to him, the interface switches to the KOTOR-inspired "Alliance interface", which has your character not actually talking and presents a mostly static view of the conversation, with a fair amount of screen real estate getting taken up by black bars. Whether you like or dislike this system, it's quite a shock to the system when you first encounter it. Fortunately the regular conversations soon return to normal and the "mute" conversations remain limited to the optional Alliance content.

He gives you the mission to recruit Yuun into your Alliance, but as it's not part of the chapter itself, you can pursue this new objective at your leisure. Afterwards you also have a private little chat with each of the other three specialists and they tell you a bit more about themselves and what they do. There's also a datapad from which you basically get free stuff just for having introduced yourself.

Afterwards it's off to the local cantina, where there are two funny side missions to (re-)recruit the two ship droids whenever you feel like it. Meanwhile, your new companions are chilling and bantering in the cantina and you have the option to talk to one of them (Koth, Lana or Theron) in private. This is mainly to get all lovey-dovey if you romanced one of them, otherwise it's just a very brief catch-up. I haven't seen any of the romantic dialogue here, I just know that Koth actually blew me off when I tried to be flirtatious with him!

After the "party" is over, you go to look for Senya outside, near your starship. She muses on your situation and the Scions' belief in destiny. She also confesses that she allowed Vaylin to get away on Asylum and that she revealed to her that Thexan died by Arcann's hand. She professes to be more certain than ever that her children need to be stopped. As soon as she leaves, Valkorion appears in front of you and asks how you feel about everything you've done so far. He says that he expects you to defeat Arcann but claims that not everyone in the Alliance agrees, hinting at dissent among the ranks.

We cut to another view of the Eternal Throne, with Arcann being haunted by the knowledge that Valkorion is still out there. Vaylin adds that their mother probably wants his head as well now but assures him that he has nothing to worry about. Arcann expresses some regret about Thexan's death and Vaylin initially shares it, but she quickly refocuses her brother's attention on killing the Outlander for threatening their rule. They have a strangely chilling exchange: "I'll die before I let that happen to us." - "Of course you will." Does Vaylin expect or even foresee her remaining brother's death? Is she planning it?

We finish with your character returning to the Alliance War Room, where you're expected to hold yet another speech, this time as official leader of the Alliance. (As an aside, as an agent it's quite hilarious when Lana tells you that you've been promoted from your previous title - as an agent, Commander - to... Commander. I can't tell whether that's meta humour or just a funny oversight.) Once again you are given the option to sound inspiring or oppressive. Your subjects are suitably impressed and we see ships from both factions fly off into the sunset in true Star Wars manner.

And then... we see Satele Shan and Darth Marr's ghost standing about, observing from the distance. So they are on Odessen! Satele expresses hope that your Alliance may eventually be able to challenge the Eternal Throne, though Marr closes with the ominous words: "A pity so many of them will have to die..."


Conclusion

Chapter nine is short and honestly pretty unexciting after everything that came before, but that's kind of the point. It lets you catch your breath, introduces you to the Alliance gameplay and tries to ease you into KotFE's endgame, while also providing the story so far with a natural if temporary stopping point, since it was always planned that there would be a bit of a break between the first nine chapters and the tenth one.

After the constant breathless hurrying from A to B of the previous chapters, I know I found it almost confusing initially to be given complete freedom of movement again: walking around an open, shared space (even if the Alliance base isn't huge), seeing other people, exploring and picking up a couple of side missions for companions.

I think chapter nine does what it's meant to do; I just fear that it won't age as well as the other chapters we've seen so far. Once all of KotFE is released and the Alliance content will mostly be forgotten as busywork that was supposed to keep players engaged while they waited for the next couple of chapters, having to stop in the middle of the story to be told all about gathering resources and pleasing your allies will have the potential to be somewhat annoying.

18/04/2016

Side Quest Love

Side quests in Star Wars: The Old Republic don't get much love. People complain that they get repetitive quickly, and others even claim that they are outright dumb. Last year Syp even made a post to suggest that they should be removed from the game entirely. Yikes! It's funny that people clamour for MMOs with more "worldly" aspects to them, but at the same time campaign to have everything removed that doesn't personally entertain them.

Time for some facts: It's true that doing the same quests over and over again gets boring, but it has never been necessary to do all the side missions on every character. You can go back to my levelling diary from launch and read about how I skipped several planets pretty much entirely on my first playthrough. No, just doing your class story wasn't going to do it at the time, but there were always options in terms of where to get that extra XP. If you decided to follow the exact same path on every alt, that's entirely on you. (My personal pet theory is that many of the complaints about repetitive side quests originated from players who couldn't decide on a class, kept rerolling, and therefore burnt themselves out on the starter experience in weeks.)

And if you consider the side quests "dumb", I can't help but wonder if you space-barred through all the conversations and focused on nothing but your quest tracker. No, killing x space baddies isn't revolutionary, but it isn't the point either. The point is the world-building done by the dialogue.

When it comes to Bartle types, I score about equally high as explorer and as socialiser. Some people think that being an explorer in an MMO means that all you ever want to do is wander towards the horizon and see new lands, but there are more things to explore than geography, and for me the background and the lore are one focus. I'm not usually someone to read huge walls of texts about lore, mind you, but I love it when the NPCs around me bring the world to life naturally, and that's exactly what SWTOR's side quests do. It seems quite appropriate that they were officially renamed to "exploration missions" in 4.0.



Let's take this one from Ord Mantell for example. No, the task of fetching two holodiscs by itself is not very exciting, but within the space of only a few minutes we get: insight into the tension between loyal civilians and the local military, the story of someone who decided to convert to the side of the separatists, and a taste of how the duration of the conflict as well as just spending too much time being exposed to this kind of thing can emotionally harden someone. Personally I also think that Lamalla is kind of funny.

On my Cathar trooper on the Ebon Hawk I decided to do all the side quests again for a change, and it really adds so much context to everything. How much do you really learn about Coruscant during your class story, no matter which one? Generally speaking, you tend to be too focused on your main objective to pay too much attention to the kind of scenery you're running through. Also, in a somewhat bizarre move (in my opinion), Bioware has decided to label the Black Bisector storyline as Coruscant's main planetary arc in 4.0... Don't get me wrong, I like these quests very much, but I would have thought that the stuff with the senators and the gangs would have been more relevant. Because yes, there is a lot going on: popular senators conspiring with gang leaders, Coruscant security being overwhelmed on all fronts, vigilantes deciding to claim whole sectors for themselves, infrastructure breaking down, and so on and so forth. Plus, some of it is just plain fun. How cool is it to help out a struggling security officer by sending a known thug off to jail with a simple wave of the hand?



Same thing on Taris. Funny thing, I never liked that planet much, and I can't help but wonder if that's at least in part due to me skipping most of its content at launch. During my brief visit to progress my class story, my main impression was that it was an icky swamp full of rakghouls, a type of mob that was simply annoying.

But when you listen to all the dialogue in the side quests, there is so much more going on: conflicts between old and new settlers, official recovery programmes clashing with greedy scavengers, and all kinds of exciting discoveries, such as that the Tarisian government decided to freeze itself to survive the bombardment, or the sad story of the refugees who built up a primitive society of their own underground after everyone else had been wiped out, until their offspring became infertile from radiation poisoning. There's more to the rakghouls as well: they may at least have some semblance of sentience...



... oh, and some of them have learned to use the Force. OK, I always thought that particular story idea was a bit dumb, but I figured there were only so many ways they could think of to make rakghouls more interesting.

The point is that a lot of what makes the planets in SWTOR interesting places to be comes from the side quests. I'm actually really excited about redoing all of those exploration missions now after skipping most of them on my more recent Republic alts and dealing with the single-mindedness of the KotFE storyline. (Chapters ten and eleven have tried to give a bit of background about the civilian population of Zakuul, but it's still quite thin compared to what could have been done with some simple side missions.)

Do you have any favourite exploration missions? I might do a "top ten" or something eventually...

15/04/2016

Flashpoint Friday: Korriban Incursion

I've been wondering how to best cover this flashpoint for a while, because I worry that a lot of what I'm going to say is basically just going to be a copy and paste of my post about Assault on Tython. The two flashpoints are just that similar! I haven't come up with a solution, but I figured I should just get it over with.


General Facts

Korriban Incursion was added to the game in March 2014, as part of patch 2.7, "Invasion". Together with Assault on Tython, which was released at the same time, it formed the first part of the Forged Alliances story arc, originally designed for level 55 characters (the level cap at the time) and now labelled as "Shadow of Revan: Prelude" in game. This arc would eventually cover four different flashpoints which initially didn't have a solo mode, forcing you to group for every single step along the way.

Fortunately queue pops were quick however, as it was released as a tactical (role-neutral, though not level neutral at the time) version only. Solo and hard mode weren't added until 3.0, and since the 4.0 revamp the tactical version has been available from level 15 and the hardmode from 50 onwards.

Korriban Incursion takes place on Korriban as we know and love it, only it's being invaded by the Republic. As a Republic player you play through the invasion yourself, while as an Imperial player you come in later and re-claim the Sith Academy from the invaders.

Fights

Depending on your faction, you fight either Sith instructors and acolytes training at the Academy, or Jedi and their padawans, whom they decided to bring along to an important invasion en masse for some reason (a problem that Assault on Tython has as well and a side effect of all the mobs just being renamed reskins for the faction that is taking the planet back).


While on Tython the Empire gets to meet the more interesting characters as the original invader, in Korriban Incursion it's the other way round. The first boss for Republic players is Lord Renning, known to Sith players as a quest giver who is obsessed with Tuk'atas and accordingly sics them on you during this fight as well. (For comparison, the random Jedi doing the same against Imperial players feels rather weird.)
 
Inside the Academy, you end up taking out Inquisitor Arzanon, Lord Solence, Lord Cestus and Overseer Ragate - all four of them characters that are also present in the Sith starting experience, with two of them acting as quest givers. Again, Imperial players just fight some random invading Jedi in their stead.

Finally, Republic players seal their victory by defeating Darth Soverus - who is officially a Dark Council member but had never been heard of before this flashpoint, which means that his death is not all that meaningful. His main ability is that he summons a probe droid add that stuns a random party member until it's killed - though on tactical mode the probe eventually expires on its own even if nobody attacks it, which has saved many a pug from wiping. (On solo mode it just appears and explodes, simply requiring you to dodge a red circle.)

When Imperial players retake the planet, they are up against all the random Jedi I already mentioned, as well as Commander Jensyn, who is guarding the Sith Academy. On Republic side he was involved with the assault and showed up at the very end, so apparently he's just been sitting in the ruined Dark Council chamber the entire time since then. He once again has the same abilities as Darth Soverus.


Other fights worth mentioning are the assault droid of many coloured circles, who is once again identical for both factions except that he's got a different designation, and the bonus boss on hardmode, a Sith or Jedi who is actually pretty damn hard as he has an AoE Force choke that also does massive damage, meaning that your healer needs to cast some proactive heals at the right time (e.g. a big group heal over time) or your whole group will die as soon as everyone gets stunned.

Story (spoilers?)

The Republic has decided to launch a daring smash-and-grab attack on Korriban, directed by a certain Colonel Darok and SIS agent Theron Shan (newly introduced to the game, only mentioned in the novel Annihilation until then). You get to be the (wo)man on the ground and land in the lower valley in front of the Sith Academy. On your way in you run into some captured slaves, whom you free - you can then either insist on finding the resources to get them out or make them tag along with primitive weapons to assist you with the fighting (which usually means that they die on the next boss).

Inside the Academy you fight more and more powerful Sith until you subdue the lone Dark Council member that's present. When Commander Jensyn shows up, the Darth mutters some strange things, expressing surprise but also sounding like he actually expected Jensyn somehow, and the Jedi stabs him. You can express annoyance about this, seeing how Soverus was already defeated anyway, but it makes no difference.


When you come back to retake the Academy as an Imperial player, you land in the same spot in the valley. Where the Republic found slaves, you find some weak acolytes that have been imprisoned, and once again you can simply let them go or draft them to (feebly) fight for you. Inside the Academy you meet Commander Jensyn (who's apparently been hanging out in the Dark Council chamber the entire time) and kill him. In his death throes he also mutters something cryptic about how "it's happening" and we can't stop it.
 
Conclusion

Like Assault on Tython, I quite like Korriban Incursion. Its story is well presented and I didn't mind the original grouping requirement, even if it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. It's fun to see a familiar location in a different context, something that Bioware hasn't repeated so far, with all other flashpoints taking place in unique environments. I originally felt so-so about the tactical thing, but with everything that's been changed in 4.0, Korriban Incursion is one of the few flashpoints that doesn't feel overtuned even if you end up with a weaker group, which is nice. And of course the introduction of Lana and Theron has turned out to be quite important in the long run...

13/04/2016

The Lonely Soldier

The last two chapters of Fallen Empire have brought something into very stark focus for me: My (main) character is losing her identity.

I haven't roleplayed with other people in a long time, but I always immerse myself in the in-game conversations and try to consider them from each individual characters' point of view. I'll admit though that I'm quite lazy with my main: Most of the time, she's really just a stronger and braver version of the real me.

Havoc Squad has been another important part of her identity. She's been a member since she was level one and has been its acting commander since about level ten. That's a long time to get used to and settle into the role of valiant defender of the Republic.

When Knights of the Fallen Empire was originally announced, I looked at it in the same way I treated any of the planetary story arcs that have been released since lauch: There's trouble afoot in the galaxy, and I (in this case the commander of Havoc Squad, but a fairly generic hero) was going to take care of it. I missed the class story, but overall I was OK with what was going on.


But things quickly turned out to be different. I lost all my companions. And let me state it outright: I'm actually not a huge companion fangirl. I like them well enough, but I rarely romance them and to be honest, since I spend so much time in content where they don't feature (raiding and PvP), I often kind of forget that they are there - but as it is so often with things, you don't know how much you'll miss something until its gone. I immediately missed that comforting security blanket of having my own squad, and part of what's holding me back from starting KotFE on more of my alts is not knowing whether I'll even canonically see all of my companions again once I let them go.

The new companions aren't great replacements either. Don't get me wrong, I think they are great characters. But it's pretty clear that they all have their own agendas and that ours is an alliance of convenience that will fall apart as soon as we disagree on something strongly enough. They don't provide my character with somebody to rely on.

Personally, I thought that my first priority after getting thawed out of that carbonite block should have been to get the old gang back together and look into getting the Republic back into shape. But Bioware had different ideas for Fallen Empire: you're given some tidbits of information about your former companions and your old faction, but somehow, you're not supposed to care that much. Overthrowing Arcann, a guy whom you've known for all of five minutes of your real time, is suddenly your sole focus. I decided to run with it because there were many things about those initial chapters that I enjoyed, but my "real" objectives kept nagging at me. I almost got teary-eyed when I got my old ship back. Finally something to connect me to my old identity!

Then things looked up for a while. That Tanno Vik had returned to a life of crime and had no interest in re-joining my cause was a bit annoying but no real surprise - it's not like I ever liked the guy that much anyway. But I got both Yuun and M1-4X back and they were both highly enthusiastic about rejoining me and said that they'd pretty much been waiting for my return, like good sidekicks are supposed to. I was halfway there on the road to re-building Havoc Squad.

And then chapter eleven happened, with the re-introduction of Aric Jorgan. He, too, was happy to see me, but also a bit surprised. For him, time hadn't stood still. He had become the new commander of Havoc Squad, and aside from the cat himself it consisted of a bunch of strangers.

(On a side note, particularly as a trooper it's kind of disappointing that you don't get a chance to get to know these characters a little better, but it's implied that Kanner, the lady with the bun, is Jorgan's XO, and if you take the time to wander around a bit after the first fight in the swamp and read all the squad members' tooltips, you can learn a bit more about them. Kanner is designated as "special assault", Xaban (the Twi'lek) as "tech rifleman", Torg the Kaleesh is a "heavy shot" and one-eyed Dengril is the field medic. Apparently I forgot to take a screenshot of Abbeth the Kel Dor, oh my. But that just as an aside.)


The point is, in this chapter it finally hit me that there really was no going back. My character was no longer the commander of Havoc Squad, because Havoc Squad as an entity had moved on. That didn't make her unimportant, but it took away one of the core features that have defined her for the past four years, and that's been quite disorienting.

Chapter twelve then took this confusion and made it even worse. Without going into the actual content, there is a lot of talk about the Force, and as a non-Force user I felt a little lost. There was one moment where people talk about you needing a new weapon where I was genuinely worried for a moment that maybe I was going to get a lightsaber now and - surprise, surprise - we would all become Jedi/Sith canonically. This wasn't the case, but it came close, with the story even bestowing a little bit of Force sensitivity on us if we didn't have any before.

The problem is: I don't want it. Sure, I'm interested in the Force as a concept and Jedi are cool, but I chose a trooper as my main because I was interested in all the other stuff going on in this galaxy far, far away. I think the very first Star Wars EU novel I ever read was Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, and while I honestly can't recall any of the stories in it off the top of my head (it's been a long time), I do remember that it instilled me with a fascination for the "side characters" of the Star Wars universe and the sorts of lives they lived. I liked that SWTOR at lauch wasn't just about the Jedi and Sith.

I have to admit that by now, I'm actually a little worried about where the story is going. I don't think it will be bad or unentertaining, but I do worry what its outcome will mean for my main. She was never meant to rule the galaxy or use the Force or any of that stuff. I'm a little afraid that in a post-KotFE universe, there won't really be any room for the random troopers, smugglers, bounty hunters and agents of the galaxy anymore as we all get shoehorned into following the Force, and that would be a real shame.

10/04/2016

More Notes From Odessen

So Thursday's patch was supposed to revert the warzone queue back to normal, and apparently it has - on most servers. Not so on the Red Eclipse! Still nothing but Alliance Proving Grounds and the occasional arena match on Rishi here. I can see how this must be annoying for people who don't like the new warzone, but personally I've been having a blast. The more time I spend fighting on Odessen, the more I like it. (EDIT: After writing this, I played some more matches and in the middle of my play session the queue suddenly did revert to normal... woe is me.)

About the only thing I don't like about the Proving Grounds is the "wave respawn" mechanic. I know some people hate being stuck behind a forcefield, but I definitely prefer that to being forced to stare at my corpse for fifteen seconds or so! I'm just waiting for a victorious enemy to start tea-bagging me or something...

In terms of gameplay, I stand by what I said before: the degree to which fighting doesn't really matter may be a bit too high - but for someone like me, who's always been better at getting the tactics right than at the actual button-mashing, it's still awesome. I love how the fast and furious nature of the constantly changing objectives has you on the move all the time and makes every round different. Though I do feel a bit sorry for the part of the population that already struggles with the more straightforward objectives of the other warzones.

I've said before that I was kind of surprised by how straightforward I found the Alliance Proving Grounds to be (compared to my expectations), but there are still a lot of aspects to this new warzone that are definitely unintuitive and I can't blame players for being confused the first few times. Nonetheless it can also be a bit frustrating for the rest of us.

For example I thought it was pretty obvious that only the control points that glow white are actually worth anything during any given round, yet I've seen more than one person just idle on an inactive point for prolonged periods of time. I'm hoping that this is simply due to people not being used to how quickly the objectives change yet and isn't really a sign of them not getting what gives points and what doesn't.

And oh, the battle mods! In my last post I described the scenario of a player deactivating their own team's control point, but oddly enough I've been feeling more frustrated by players simply not using the battle mods at all (since carrying one around through multiple rounds prevents it from respawning). I get that they are confusing initially and I don't expect miracles from anyone... but when there is a lull in the fighting and you have a giant coloured beam of light coming out of your character, maybe it might be a good idea to read the tooltip to figure out what's going on?

There was one match in particular where there were three of us at the inactive northern node at the start of a round: me on my Sage, a Sorc and a Guardian. The Guardian was carrying the green buff to activate an inactive control point and both me and the Sorc were telling him in chat to use it, but apparently he wasn't reading chat either. When he started running away, the Sorc yanked him back. He started running away again; this time I yanked him back. Fortunately he at least found the button to pass the mod to someone else at this point and we were able to apply it, but by then we had lost valuable time during which we could have been earning points already.

Finally, the last thing I imagine being very tricky for new players right now is that "following the pack" - which is solid advice in pretty much any other warzone - really doesn't work very well in the Proving Grounds. Since the objectives (including the battle mods) are so scattered, you pretty much have to split up to make the most of them. When I'm taking a quick detour to pick up a battle mod fresh out of the gate, I don't need two people following me! In fact, even on an active objective point, having four or more people from one team in one place is pretty much a guaranteed sign that something is going awry elsewhere. Yet even knowing what I do, it still feels weird how often I find myself running away from a battle to chase after an as of yet untapped objective.

Clearly more time in the Proving Grounds is required...

07/04/2016

Alliance Proving Grounds - Initial Thoughts

There are a fair few things to say about patch 4.3, but my own priorities were clear as soon as I logged in. I wanted to try the new warzone! Fortunately Bioware obliged by making it so that Alliance Proving Grounds (the new warzone's official name) was the only thing that popped - all night, every night. I honestly still can't tell whether that was intentional or a bug - I expected them to increase its chance to pop for the first week or so, like they did with Quesh Huttball when it came out, but giving players absolutely nothing else to play for days seemed kind of excessive if it was intentional. Either way it suited me just fine, because the new warzone was what I was really there for and I wanted to have as many chances as possible to get to grips with it. While I hadn't tried it on the PTS, I had read Xam Xam's helpful guide on it, but even so many things that I had read about sounded like the kind of thing that you need to experience first hand to really be able to make sense of it. I'm actually kind of sad that today's patch already reverted the queue back to normal.


The first thing that struck me was the mixed-faction nature of the warzone. I had read about it of course and it does make sense from a lore point of view (I do love that SWTOR even wants its warzones to tell a coherent story), but it still felt weird as hell to be grouped with Powertechs and Sorcs. It may sound weird, but it honestly left me feeling a bit confused. Unlike in other warzones, I never once managed to get a real sense of who was on my team in the Proving Grounds, because spell effects from both factions were just flying all over the place and I couldn't tell what was what other than from the fact that some names were green and some were red. It felt very counter-intuitive and seemed to reaffirm my initial dislike of the faction-mixing system. Where was the benefit to gameplay? You can already play same-faction matches if the two sides have unbalanced populations, surely mixing it up just that little bit more won't make enough of a difference to be significant?

Well, there was actually one gameplay advantage to the mixed factions that I did discover: better skill balance. I've complained time and again on this blog that, on average, the Empire wins so much more on TRE than the Republic. Well, guess what? When both teams have a mix of both factions on them, that skill imbalance is gone. It may very well have been a coincidence, but at least Tuesday and Wednesday night I experienced an almost perfectly balanced win-loss-ratio. How odd.

But anyway, on to the warzone itself. My first impression was that, somewhat to my surprise, it seemed somewhat less confusing than I expected it to be. Admittedly I had read a guide, but even so... while there's complexity, the objectives struck me as a lot more straightforward than for example those in Ancient Hypergates. I figured out battle mods pretty quickly and ended up having a lot of fun using them to my team's advantage, particularly the green one that lets you slice an inactive control point. The only one I didn't like getting was the red one to deactivate a currently active control point, because while I did successfully apply it to an enemy node once or twice, most of the time it just seemed to make you a target for a focused nuke from the enemy team. The only painful thing about the control point and battle mod mechanics is that this is the first time that someone not knowing the rules of the warzone can actively harm their own team. Sure, you can be a doofus in Huttball and run the ball onto your own line, but you won't score that way. Compare that to the humility of people deactivating their own team's control points in the Proving Grounds or even applying a boost to an enemy-controlled node... oy vey.


Not me of course. I'd read the guide!

If nothing else, Bioware definitely succeeded in introducing a game mode that feels very different from any of the others already in the game. The map is extremely closed off compared to any of the other warzones, with lots of tunnels to disappear into and very limited opportunities to see what your enemies are up to unless you're piled right on top of them. Combined with the fact that kills do not add to the score in any way and that the fast-paced nature of the rounds makes it so that overwhelming a control point only pays off if you can do so quickly enough, this leads to a situation where I would say that actual combat is almost discouraged. Whether at an objective or not, if an enemy takes too long to kill, it's pretty much always a waste of time. I often ended up making the best contribution to my team if I just ran around between control points, applying battle mods and ignoring everything else. It's different, but slightly odd!

While this may not sound like the most ringing endorsement, I definitely enjoyed my first look at the Alliance Proving Grounds. It helps that for once it made me feel like I'd landed somewhere where my class and role were a very tangible advantage. While not as OP as Sorcs with their knockback that also roots, I did have my own knockback, limited knockback-immunity of my own with Hold The Line, and seeing how I just mentioned that refusing to die quickly wastes the enemy's time, being a healer was excellent, even when I was running around on my own and eventually headed towards (slow) doom.

Have you had a chance to look at the new warzone yet? If so, what did you think?

04/04/2016

KotFE Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 8: Taking Flight

My detailed discussion of Knights of the Fallen Empire's chapters approaches the end of the original story arc launched in October! Chapter eight is its grand finale. Needless to say, there will be spoilers.



You return to Asylum and Scorpio starts working on repairing the damage to the Gravestone in ways that Koth seems to have been unable to. Meanwhile, Lana has good news: "certain elements" from both the Republic and the Empire are interested in setting up an Alliance against the Eternal Throne.

You're interrupted by a holocall from Heskal, who wants you to come to the Scion hideout. T7 is happy to accompany you. You arrive to find dead Scions all over the floor... and witness Heskal getting killed by Arcann, who says that Heskal actually invited him to Asylum. He reveals that he killed the Scions because he considers himself to be above fate and offers you the option to surrender - all he asks is that you allow yourself to be re-frozen until he can figure out a way to get Valkorion out of your head and surrender the Gravestone.

Interestingly, you have the option to genuinely accept his offer, but when you call Lana she doesn't believe that you would really surrender and - get this - Valkorion actually appears to Arcann and tells him that he'll never be rid of him without killing you first. (Shoutout to xLetalis for showing this option on his channel - I'd never chosen it myself and was quite surprised by the outcome.) You also have the option to pretend to surrender and then warn your crew on the Gravestone. (Though that you do so right in front of Arcann seems a bit dumb - could have tried to get a bit further away first!) Finally, you can just attack him right away - you'll end up fighting either way. The ensuing fight is drawn-out and not very interesting except that you can use Arcann's own powers against him - if you get him to place his red circles on himself, he actually ends up stunning himself! Can't say that speaks for his competence...


Once you get Arcann to about half health, he knocks you back against a wall and we cut to an outside view of the Eternal Fleet arriving, as well as ships already fleeing from Asylum - a bit strange that they already know what's happening, especially if you didn't radio your crew. With upgraded targeting algorithms, the Gravestone shoots down an enemy ship that crashes right into the Scion hideout, causing Arcann to seemingly get buried under a giant collapsing pillar and giving you a chance to get away.

On the way out you have to fight skytroopers and knights, who as usual are everywhere instantly (sigh). You also find a couple of them dragging Heskal's body away, who has amazingly managed to not die yet despite of having received Arcann's lightsaber right through the chest. He confirms that he betrayed you because it was his fate and claims that the other Scions are still on your side, even though they will all die soon as part of a glorious future he has foreseen, before finally expiring for good (you can help with that if you like but he dies anyway).

We cut away to Arcann emerging from the rubble and instructing Vaylin, who's just landed troops on the ground, to spare no-one. On your way back to the Gravestone the background chatter that you heard from NPCs before has changed in amusing ways, with refugees who were previously moaning about their situation frantically looking for anywhere else to go. When you reach the ship, Lana tells you that the docking clamps have been locked down and you can't get away. Koth and HK are already on their way to the control spar to fix this, but they'll need help. Vaylin shows up and wants to kill you, but Senya interferes by Force-pushing you half a mile away (slightly strange way of being helpful) and says that this is a family matter. You and Lana leave her to face Vaylin alone and fight your way to the free zone to meet up with Koth. If you left Tanno Vik alive in chapter six, he's helping out with the fighting there as well.

Apparently HK-55 has already got ahead somehow, but you and Koth need to steal a shuttle to get up to the control spar while Lana stays behind to guard a chokepoint. Meanwhile Senya and Vaylin are duelling outside, with Senya vainly trying to reason with Vaylin to win her over to her cause. You meet up with HK, and he and Koth stay behind to defend against Zakuulian reinforcements while you take a cargo lift up to the actual control station.

The control room is strangely empty, though the kolto stations around its perimeter should be a warning that something bad is about to happen. Indeed, as soon as you go to use the console to release the Gravestone, Arcann appears out of nowhere and makes a lunge for you. HK-55 joins in to help you but the ensuing fight is still supremely annoying, as Arcann, like Revan, has a huge arsenal of knockdowns and stuns while being immune to them himself. There are power conduits around the room which you can smash to do some extra damage to him, but it can be tricky to get the smashing animation to complete as Arcann's attacks constantly interrupt it.

Once you finally get his health low enough, he suddenly knocks you down and HK has to throw himself into the line of fire to protect you, getting destroyed in the process. (Nooo...!) Arcann corners you, and Valkorion freezes time once more, urging you to use his powers to defend yourself. Interestingly, if you used Valkorion's powers on both previous occasions, you cannot refuse him - he will take over your body anyway. (Thanks to FibroJedi for this probably not widely known detail!) With Valkorion's power, you blast Arcann off the nearest rail... and hit some innocent refugee ships outside as well, as you're zapping just that hard. If you refuse Valkorion's help, Arcann actually stabs you in the stomach! However, either Koth or Lana show up just in time to dislodge a giant crate from the ceiling and use it to push Arcann off the nearest ledge anyway. Whether drained by Valkorion using you or because you took a lightsaber to the gut, you're not in a good state as you make your way back to the Gravestone.


Meanwhile, Senya has managed to best Vaylin in single combat but doesn't have the nerve to kill her. You and your crew make a successful escape, even though the Gravestone's special cannon isn't ready to inflict any damage. As your character collapses from pain on the bridge, Tora utters the unforgettable line: "Are you dying? Can I have your stuff?" As you pass out, we cut back to Arcann and Vaylin on Asylum. Arcann, who is of course completely unharmed after falling down a bottomless abyss, concludes that his father's power is weaker than it used to be, while Vaylin seems more determined than ever to kill their mother after she showed her mercy.

You wake up two days later, with everyone very concerned about you. You all update each other on what happened: Koth's crew suffered some losses and HK is supposed to be gone for good as his memory core couldn't be recovered. However, the good news is that the Republic and Imperial contacts that Lana mentioned at the beginning of the chapter have been convinced by the recent battle to throw their support behind you. You are to become the leader of a new Alliance based on the planet Odessen, which is where you are now headed.

Conclusion

Chapter eight is the grand conclusion to the first half of KotFE, and while I did some gentle chiding in my summary in terms of enemies and NPCs always miraculously being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, it does its job well. It's hard not be emotionally affected by the Battle of Asylum: First there's Heskal betrayal (even if you didn't like him, it comes somewhat fast and suddenly), the big showdown between Senya and Vaylin, and finally the fight against Arcann, including HK's heroic sacrifice. (Though the emotional strength of that particular moment has been significantly weakened after Bioware brought him back after all, plus there's the whole flooding us with silly HK-themed items thing.)

I thought the final confrontation with Arcann was particularly well done - on my first playthrough I had been steadfast and always refused Valkorion's power, but when Arcann had me cornered I relented out of fear for my character's life - yes, even though I knew that practically, you're not going to die here no matter what, I was just that immersed.

In terms of NPC character development, Senya and Valkorion are probably the most interesting here. (Though you also get a chance for a bit of flirtation/romance with Lana and Koth). Senya's attempts to reason with Vaylin and failure to strike her down when she had the chance show that, despite of all her claims to the contrary, she isn't really ready to take that final step in the fight against her children. And Valkorion gets a chance to show his nastier side (if you make the right choices) that stands in contrast to his constant attempts at smooth-talking, by directly goading Arcann into attacking you if you offer to surrender and outright taking control of your body from you if you try to defy him and made the "wrong" choices before.

It feels like all the major pieces have been set up for a grand finale, but first it's time to catch our collective breath for a bit...

01/04/2016

Flashpoint Friday: Athiss

Happy April Fools' Day! At the time of writing this, no April Fools' joke has been posted on the official website, but I know from past experience that Bioware can be very slow with getting these things out, so let's wait and see. In the meantime, let's talk about another flashpoint, one that has been with us since launch: Athiss.


General Facts

Athiss was another one of the original six levelling flashpoints accessible to both factions. I've covered four of them before - who's kept track and knows which one is still missing after this? Athiss was originally designed for levels 19-25 and is now available in a tactical version for levels 15-65. A hardmode was added with Rise of the Hutt Cartel, which is now also available from 50-65.

Fights

Athiss is actually a quite beautiful planet that makes you traverse more than one type of environment and also faces you off against a wide variety of different opponents. You start off in some Sith underground ruins where you kill wild animals inhabiting them and come up against a bunch of explorers gone mad. In fact their leader, Professor Ley'arsha, is the first boss. She's a fairly straightforward fight with adds, though she also causes players to place bad stuff on the ground that's somewhat hard to see and causes a stacking debuff.

After exiting the first set of ruins, you traverse some open space inhabited by "tomb dwellers" and their pets, who give the impression of being savages of sorts, dressed in rags and attacking with axes (though they do have blasters too). Finally you get to the tomb of Vodal Kressh, which is guarded by a giant snarler that is also the second boss. This guy can actually be quite nasty to pugs who don't know what to do as he regularly summons a set of adds from the tomb and likes to stun everyone around him. If not properly controlled, this can for example end up with your healer getting mauled by adds while stunned until you wipe. At the same time it's actually pretty easy if you know how to handle the adds and always AoE them down the moment they spawn. I like this fight as it really rewards good gameplay.

Finally you enter the tomb of Vodal Kressh, where you find some more wild beasts as well as various rogue Sith. In an interesting change from the previous trash packs, all the Sith are powerful champions that can be single-pulled if you're careful, but there are knockbacks and patrols to watch out for, which once again actually requires some care. This part actually had the dubious honour of causing one of my very first dungeon groups in the game to fall apart, as the last two trash mobs were still linked back then (which was later amended), and without crowd control the two of them together were just too overwhelming for little old us.


Finally you're up against the Prophet of Vodal, a Sith who is mostly a tank and spank with a painful dot that gets placed on a random group member and should be cleansed if possible. His interesting gimmick is that he vanishes repeatedly and marks one group member who will then be chased by deadly balls of... fire? These cannot be attacked and need to be kited away from the group by the targeted person until their debuff expires. Contact is very painful!

In hardmode there is also a bonus beastie with a powerful knockback that does lots of AoE damage in one of the rooms before the boss .

Story

Both Republic and Empire have intercepted a distress signal from a Republic survey team on the planet Athiss, most of whose members have gone mad. The Jedi Council wants you to look into rescuing them and fighting the ominous dark side presence on the planet that has caused their insanity. The Empire actually knows what it is: long ago, the planet used to be the base of a powerful Sith alchemist called Vodal Kressh. The Emperor didn't get along with him and wanted the place quarantined after his death. With the quarantine violated by the explorers anyway, you might as well go in and clean up the mess that the Emperor didn't want anyone to see.

You find the crazed explorers pretty quickly and can choose to activate a beacon to have them rescued... or leave it off to not draw even more people towards the planet's dark influence. Then it's just a matter of cleaning up said influence.

Based on the many Sith you find, it's eventually concluded that they must have been descendants of Vodal's followers and that he may have even continued to rule them as a Force ghost. Good thing that you brought an end to that... sort of. (To me it never felt like the Prophet of Vodal was the real guy in charge there.)

Conclusion


Like the other flashpoints of this particular "type", Athiss is a fun romp with interesting mechanics and it stands out for offering more varied environments and enemy types than most flashpoints. There are also little Easter eggs for all the gathering professions again: Slicers can repair a lift at the start to avoid fall damage, scavengers can repair a broken droid to make it fight for them, archaeologists can unlock two shortcuts and a small buff, and bioanalysts can summon little snarlers as temporary combat pets. While Athiss is not my absolute favourite of these story-light levelling flashpoints, it's definitely close!

29/03/2016

Time For More PvP Fun

I'm late posting this because once again it took some time until I actually got around to editing, but Sunday a week ago I joined Traitine for some lowbie PvP on stream again and this time Ravanel was there too! We ended up in a lot of arenas and in multiple Huttball matches, with the indisputable highlight being an arena where we didn't get a fourth player and even though we all ran off in different directions at the start we still beat the enemy team of four. (Also, Traitine shared his secret for getting tens of thousands of Cartel Coins for free - apparently it's having your referral link up on a website that gets good traffic. Who'd have thought?)



This past weekend I also joined Rav, Conrad and their friend Marinka for some max-level PvP, which I hadn't done in a long time. Unsurprisingly, life at max level was a lot tougher and we didn't win nearly as many games, but being grouped with some other players who were both friendly and competent still made it fun even when we lost.

The biggest surprise for me however came shortly afterwards, when my pet tank asked me to do some PvP with him - and that after he had stayed clear of PvP for over a year! (I'd like to think that he must have felt inspired by seeing me having fun with Rav & Co. but to be truthful, his thought processes are often a mystery to me.)

I'm just pleased that PvP is once again there to fill the "content gap" when PvE is letting me down, as has often happened in the past. For all its faults, SWTOR's PvP is just incredibly solid. Now I'm looking forward to the release of the new warzone next week even more.