26/02/2017

KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 6: The Dragon's Maw

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter six! Though if you missed it...



We've reached what's probably my favourite KotET chapter... but more on that later.

The Story

With the fight on Iokath wrapped up one way or another, things seem to have calmed down a bit, except that Vaylin having retaken control of the Gemini droids also means more attacks on Alliance patrols and outposts. Since she's in a celebratory mood, she wants to throw a grand party, with its main event being the execution of some Zakuulan rebels. What she doesn't know is that her "party organiser", a guy called Indo Zal, is a traitor too and has gotten in touch with the Alliance to disrupt the festivities and free his compatriots before they can be killed.

The plan is for Lana and T7 to slice the security grid while you and Theron infiltrate the party dressed as Knights of Zakuul and plant ion charges around the building that will allow you to break all the prisoners' shock collars in one fell swoop. This serves as a fantastic advert for the Zakuul Knight armour set by the way; I thought my characters looked really snazzy in their disguises! Wonder if that increased Bioware's sales of that particular item set... I was kind of tempted myself, but still couldn't think of a way that wearing this set would make sense for any of my characters outside of this particular scenario.

Anyway, you and Theron successfully infiltrate the party and pick up the ion charges from Indo, and then comes the part that I love but which I could also see people hating: a puzzle section during which you spend your time running around the building, trying to get access to all the locations where you need to plant the charges. This involves the solving of some simple problems, such as pretending to be the food delivery person for the guards to gain access to their barracks. If you get stuck, there is an in-game hint button you can click. I'm not going to describe all the steps in detail here; if you need a walkthrough I can recommend Fibrojedi's for the main mission and this post by Calphaya for the super secret bonus mission that isn't even displayed. 


While you plant the charges, we're treated to a scene of Vaylin talking to an Anomid via holo, who assures her that they are close to freeing her of her "weakness" (aka the conditioning). Indo walks in on this conversation and manages to immediately look highly conspicious... one has to wonder how he managed to fool Vaylin for as long as he did if merely walking in on her in the middle of a conversation is enough to cause him to blow his disguise. Unsurprisingly, he gets added to the shock collar squad.

You finish planting the charges just in time for Vaylin's speech, which is when you decide to ditch the armour and crash the party. Vaylin just has enough time to throw the rebels into her beast pit before you activate the ion charges and say the magic words to trigger her conditioning. Right on cue, an unknown shuttle also attacks the building, and out comes... Arcann, accompanied by some soldiers. In the ensuing panic, with people running all over the place and various blast doors getting shut, you manage to jump into the beast pit where Indo and the rest of the rebels are unarmed and exposed to various beasties (though if you did the secret bonus, all but the rancor will be friendly to you). You defend and free them and then have the option to order them to serve as your cannon fodder or encourage them to get to safety.

Vaylin has fled the scene to the sky deck, where she is confronted by her brother and they fight. As soon as you arrive, Vaylin uses a speeder to make her escape, leaving you to confront Arcann alone. Interestingly, he's very different depending on whether you chose to help or kill Senya in chapter one. If you made the kind choice, Arcann himself has turned to the light side while he was away. As a gesture of how much he's changed, he's even got rid of his face mask. (I kind of thought he needed that thing to survive but I guess he just wore it to look edgy and hide his scars? Unless the ritual on Voss also healed him physically so that he doesn't need the mask anymore.) If you killed Senya, Arcann is more or less his old self only even madder and angrier.


Redeemed Arcann vs. "Darkann"

Light side Arcann will pledge his allegiance to you and helps you fight off some Horizon guards. Dark side Arcann wants to fight to the death as usual, but this time you finally get to kill him. (This is what, your fifth attempt to do so?) Since there are lots of holo cameras watching, you also get to frame the event in a light or dark context regardless of which version of Arcann you're dealing with. Either you're a benevolent rescuer, backed by the former ruler / ridding the planet of the previous tyrant, or you're showing off your power, having the former ruler kneel to you / killing him on camera to demonstrate your might. Also, Valkorion chimes in to make some douchey comments to his son either way. The bastard.

Vaylin has escaped to her flagship and orders the fleet to bombard the site to kill everyone, but Lana and T7 help you escape. You return to Odessen victorious, either with a former emperor in tow to support you from now on, or having absorbed his strength while killing him (as commented on by Lana and Valkorion). Either Arcann or Valkorion also comment that Vaylin remains a challenge and won't remain chained by her conditioning forever. And indeed, the chapter ends with the player watching her ship arrive above a dead world where she plans to break her chains.

My Thoughts

I absolutely loved the puzzle section of this chapter. Adventure games were the first PC gaming genre I ever fell in love with as a teenager, and the tasks you have to take care of in this chapter certainly harken back to that kind of gameplay. Now, since this is quite different from what we usually do in SWTOR, I could also see people hating it, but I would hope that only few would have quite such a strong negative reaction. Even on the forums I only found this post by a guy proclaiming that this chapter had "chased him off", but most of the replies seemed vaguely bemused by this rather than in agreement. Bioware actually does have a long history of inserting random puzzles into their content, yet they remain infrequent enough that it's still a surprise every time it happens. I think this chapter does a good job in terms of setting expectations though, as it's explained from the start that your goal is to succeed via subterfuge instead of fighting, so you avoid the pitfall of suddenly running into a "puzzle wall" in the middle of a combat mission.


I also love the hidden bonus mission. It's cute, rewards people for paying attention beyond what it says on the objective tracker, and especially on the harder difficulties it's actually quite handy to complete as well - while your "pets" aren't particularly strong, effectively having four extra "companions" following you around and helping you fight things is definitely useful in terms of dps.

Arcann coming back in two different ways depending on your choices in chapter one is also really well done and undoubtedly one of the better ways in which Bioware managed to live up to their "choices matter" mantra. Initially I wasn't sure whether I liked light side Arcann because in my opinion he comes across as a bit odd - even if you helped Senya, he was confused and hostile the last time you met and his change of mind isn't really explained. However, he grew on me over time and I found his portrayal actually kind of realistic in the sense that he clearly went through a life-changing experience and is now totally focused on it - like someone who converted to a new religion or otherwise changed their lifestyle, found that their life changed for the better afterwards, and is now trying to prove his devotion to his new way of life at every opportunity. Incidentally, the SWTOR Facebook page revealed the other day that 76% of players so far have chosen to redeem Arcann.

Finally, I thought that Indo Zal was a pretty good character in the sense that they managed to give him a fair bit of characterisation for someone who was only just introduced and remains a minor character throughout.

The only negative thing I have to say about this chapter is that the layout of the building feels like it's designed to artificially prolong the chapter, especially towards the end when certain doors suddenly close without explanation, forcing you to run all around the houses to get to where you need to be. I did love the overall atmosphere though.

23/02/2017

Why Raid (in SWTOR)?

Raiding has been on my mind a lot lately. It's actually kind of strange how little I write about it on here, considering that it's the activity that I participate in with the most regularity in SWTOR, as I run operations with my guild several times a week. (It might even win in terms of overall time spent... but I'm not sure about that one.) True, Bioware hasn't exactly given us much to work with for a while, but still...


The announcement that a new operation is finally in the works has been welcome in these parts, but almost as soon as it was out, suddenly the opposition was out in full force again too. Even after two years, how dare Bioware "waste" time on things like a new raid when we still haven't got all our old companions back? And so on and so forth. Few MMO features seem to agitate people on both sides of the fence quite as much as raids, as you have both the supporters that keep shouting that the game needs them or it will surely die and the detractors that angrily denounce any time spent on them as a waste of resources that just caters to a tiny minority. I mean, obviously everyone wants the devs to focus on the stuff that they personally are the most interested in, but people don't seem nearly as passionate about shouting down other people's points of view when it comes to other features. Off the top of my head, only PvP comes close in terms of the amount of outrage it generates.

Looking at it from another angle, dev decisions on the subject of raiding remain inscrutable. Sure, there's WoW, which loves its raiding and which keeps being held up as the gold standard in that department. But other games seem to flip back and forth with no clear signs of whether treating raiding any particular way is good or bad. Wildstar pushed the hardcore raiding angle pretty hard and many put the blame for its lack of success solely on that. On the other hand we have games like Guild Wars 2, which prided themselves on being different from the rest, suddenly jumping on the raid bandwagon late in the game. LOTRO made headlines in gaming circles when it openly scoffed at raiders, yet a few years later they are back to trying to court them with new content. SWTOR never went so far as to say they weren't going to create any more operations, but still left its raiding community hanging for a really long time, just to frantically scramble to make a new release this year. It's funny because whether you think that raids are good or even necessary for a game's success or the complete opposite, if you look at the behaviour of different developers you can currently find evidence to support either point of view. Maybe everyone just keeps making raids because it's what WoW does and studios are still trying to find the secret sauce that will make them as successful as Blizzard.

I suppose it doesn't help that people raid for very different reasons, so even among the tiny raiding minority, not all raids will have equal appeal. Back in my WoW days I remember a fellow blogger explaining how raiding, for him, was all about solving the puzzle of the fight, and he reckoned that he'd be just as happy if instead of fighting dragons with magic missiles we were simply moving geometric shapes around. I knew right away that this definitely wasn't me. I like the feeling of immersion, of fighting a fight so grand that I alone am not strong enough to best it. That's something that matters to me to make raiding fun.


But I also like the camaraderie, which is a major reason of why I've happily continued to down (or die to) the same bunch of raid bosses in SWTOR for the last two years. This is one area where I have not seen or heard of anything that can truly replace the raiding experience yet. Large scale zergs mostly seem to appeal to people who aren't playing with a bunch of friends and just want easy random grouping, but from my point of view I found that they get pretty dull soon when you're actually looking for something to do as a pre-made group.

I'm not a "raid or die" kind of person: Not having raids is not a reason for me not to play a game, and I'm open to doing other types of group content. I just haven't encountered anything yet that really manages to scratch that itch in the same way. At the same time I would never start playing a game just because people say that it has good raiding. SWTOR could remove all raids tomorrow and I would continue to play it - though differently and a lot less - but there is a lot more to a good MMO than one type of content.

I actually wouldn't recommend SWTOR to anyone if they were asking for an MMO to raid in above everything else... but good raiding does add one more thing that can add to a game's overall appeal. The main things I like about SWTOR are the IP (which includes the setting and overall tone of the world), the graphical style finding a nice middle ground between cartoony and realistic, the classic hotbar MMO gameplay and the focus on good storytelling. Its raiding is a nice bonus because I've always been a middle-of-the-road raider, bored by zergs but not good enough to beat the hardest content, and this is the difficulty level that SWTOR's operations largely cater to. If you like SWTOR for other reasons but also like playing with other people, you could do a lot worse than giving its operations a try.

20/02/2017

GSF Lessons

I'm continuing to play Galactic Starfighter sporadically, just enough to complete the weekly (which requires 4-7 games, depending on whether you win or lose) on one or two characters.

As I mentioned in the GSF stream with Traitine last month, I've been amused to see characters recently that were clearly created with the sole purpose of playing GSF and have intentionally been given names such as "Spontaneous Combustion" - which results in funny announcements such as "Spontaneous Combustion destroyed Shintar" whenever they get a kill.

I also ran into this guy, who easily made my evening (click to enlarge and be able to read the chat):


What's been less nice has been seeing people insult new/bad players with comments like "this match is full of bots". (I'm pretty sure there are no bots in GSF.) I mean, I'm used to people being unnecessarily rude in PvP of any flavour, but that insult in particular kind of gets me because it's basically saying: "You guys are so bad I can't even believe you are human." Way to make the curious newbies feel welcome.

That said, apparently AFKing in GSF is also becoming a thing. I haven't seen it myself yet, but Calph tells me that he's encountered it a couple of times by now. What people expect to gain that way, I'm not sure, since you do get a "no rewards" debuff if you don't shoot or guard anything for long enough. (I've actually occasionally been flagged by this myself when I've failed to hit anything for too long in a deathmatch!)

I've also decided that I really want to get better at GSF and try out some new things. I found my comfort zone with the gunship and bomber, but I've stuck with the same two ships for too long now. There are different types and loadouts to try out, and maybe even a scout. I remember being put off the scout and strike fighter as a new player because I barely knew how to move and their high speed was just too disorientating. Now that I got a better grip on the gameplay with gunship and bomber, it's not nearly as scary though and occasionally I've even found myself annoyed by how slow those two ship types are to move and turn.

The thing that eventually pushed me into trying a scout was the Spearpoint, which has a great utility that gives everyone around you a speed boost, which can make a vital difference when it comes to quickly capturing the objectives in domination matches. So I've taken to starting those matches with the scout at least (unless someone else has announced that they will give the buff) and then try to cap a satellite with sheer speed. The other night I actually succeeded and didn't die immediately afterwards, so I shot off towards the nearest gunship and tried to kill it the way other scouts often kill me. And I succeeded at that too (though someone else may have helped)! I was almost relieved when I finally died and could get off that dizzying high and back to flying something slower and more "normal" for my standards. Baby steps.

I also found a YouTube channel called GSF School, which tries to explain GSF for newbies in very professionally made and entertaining videos. I can recommend their short video on finding out how many GSF matches are running at any given point in time. (I sort of already knew this, but didn't know that you could enter all three terms at once without mucking up the search.) Recently they also posted two videos called Movement 101 and Weapons 101. I hesitated to watch them because I've played hundreds of GSF matches; surely I've got the 101 part down at least? In the end I went ahead anyway and guess what, I learned new things from both videos. If you are baffled by how one can go through hundreds of matches without even being aware of certain basics... well, they are not explained anywhere in game! I did read and play through the tutorials back in the day, but they really don't tell you very much. Maybe we'll make a dogfighter out of me yet...

17/02/2017

KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 5: Ascension

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter five! Though if you missed it...


 
The Story

After the revelation that Aries is the one in control of Iokath, he personally confirms via holocall that he was indeed testing whether any of you were "worthy" of inheriting the planet (though he never explains what exactly that would have entailed) but since nobody passed his test, he doesn't need you anymore and just sends more droids to eliminate you. We see him trying to blow up Scorpio as well, but she, too, manages to evade him.

Soon afterwards, Scorpio contacts you again via a secure channel to let you know that Vaylin has escaped as well. We see the latter reunite with what's left of her forces and pushing a Gemini droid to its death for expressing anxiety about the situation. Scorpio suggests that Vaylin's antics may be sufficient distraction for Aries to enable you to defeat him.

Your conversation is rudely interrupted when a colossal war droid next to you suddenly comes to life and needs taking out. As soon as it goes down, the rest of your crew finds you. You tell them of what you've learned, and Theron suggests a new escape route via his shuttle, which was parked in the Gravestone's hangar... he just hadn't thought of trying to contact it before. You're still penned in by the droid swarm, but now you've also got a giant war droid, only lightly damaged. You patch it up to use it against the swarm and your character looks ridiculously pleased about getting to pilot it while the rest of your crew make their way to the shuttle.


Another vehicle section follows, this one - in my opinion anyway - the most fun example of these in KotET. You get to stomp on enemy droids en masse, and since you have an ability on a short cooldown that temporarily makes you immune to damage while healing you to full, the fight is trivially easy... but hey, if you're going to sell the feeling of being a giant, nigh invincible war machine that stomps things, you might as well go all the way, you know?

The droid explodes shortly after you eject from it, and you and your team manage to make a break for it with Theron's shuttle. However, Scorpio warns you off that the planet is still surrounded by a deadly energy shield that prevents you from escaping. Aries adds some urgency to the situation by telling you that he's re-energising the weapon that he used to knock you out at the start of chapter four... but this time it will be set to kill instead of stun. He clearly enjoys telling you all this way too much though, as his speech goes on for long enough that it gives Scorpio time to locate him and the energy shield controls, so she can send you the coordinates.

You and Vette get dropped off at Aries' location while Theron flies off to hunt down the Gravestone, arguing that the shuttle is too vulnerable to hang around. He could have left you more than one crew member to face down the big bad though... While you fight your way into Aries' base, Vaylin and her soldiers have found the Eternal Fleet and are reclaiming it. However, they are just as penned in by the planetary shield as you are. A random droid that tries to shoot Vaylin triggers her wrath and sends her into a childish hissy fit during which she uses the Force to smash its dismembered torso left and right. Even her underlings are quietly shaking their heads about that display.


Theron manages to reclaim the Gravestone but can't come to your aid as he's got to dodge the Eternal Fleet ships. Vaylin's broken droid toy meanwhile reveals to her what's going on with Aries and his plans. He also comments that the Gemini droids are obviously corrupted by Scorpio's free will programming and offers to reset them to the factory setting. (Really? Is there anything this random dismembered droid can't do?)

You and Vette eventually find Aries, whose real form is that of a blocky, pretty damn ugly droid. Things heat up as Vaylin starts bombing your position (she doesn't want to be blown up by Aries either) and Aries tells his superweapon to fire as soon as it's finished charging. But in typically heroic fashion, you defeat him and manage to prevent it from firing just in time. When the defeated Aries gets up again to take one last stab at you, Scorpio shows up and finishes him off. She also deactivates the planetary shield for you and tells you about her intent to upload herself to Iokath and merge with it. You can let her proceed or destroy her before she has a chance to go through with her plan, but either way you urgently need to get away afterwards, because the charged weapon is going to overload and explode after all, threatening to cover the entire area in radiation.

Vaylin's closest Gemini captain relates this turn of events to her Empress and advises that they must flee too, but Vaylin won't hear of it and orders her broken droid toy to go through with resetting the Gemini to make it obey her. You make it to the Gravestone and jump to hyperspace just in time to avoid the explosion. Then we cut to Vaylin and see that she is suddenly in hyperspace too, and only a number of vessels she had sent to pursue the Gravestone got destroyed by the explosion. Whatever happened to "We must stay and kill my enemies"? That part always confuses me a bit.


You return to Odessen, and in the unlikely event that you allowed traitorous Koth to survive, he takes off at this point (without stealing anything). Lana reports that Iokath will remain too dangerously irradiated to go back and do any exploring for a while, but if you let Scorpio live, she sent you some helpful info to help with upgrading the Gravestone. If Senya is still alive, you're told that she's still comatose. If you killed her, your spies report that Arcann has required extensive cybernetic upgrades while underground. You also share the secret of Vaylin's conditioning with Lana. Valkorion's ghost warns you to not get too complacent just because things are going well. And Vaylin makes her droid toy reset all the remaining Gemini before finally crushing it for good.

My Thoughts

Ascension always strikes me as a bit of a low point of KotET, though that might change with more replays - who knows. It's not terrible or anything, but it always makes me feel like I want to move on and just get to chapter six already. Aries isn't given enough time to develop into a villain we really care about beyond not wanting to be blown up by him. Fun fact: During my first ever playthrough, when Vette starts the chapter with the line "Aries controls Iokath?", I was initially confused because I hadn't even caught on to who Aries was (he mumbles a bit during his introduction and I don't have subtitles on).

Also, while stories like these always require some suspension of disbelief, I felt that there's just too much going on in this chapter that just doesn't make sense. There's that random droid conveniently revealing everything to Vaylin, having way more power and knowledge than you'd expect any random mook to have, and helping her reprogram the entire fleet... for no benefit to him. Or what about Vaylin raging about not wanting to leave before her enemies are dead but then conveniently being in hyperspace already while the Outlander and her crew - who've been trying to escape the whole time - barely make it?


The choice to get rid of Scorpio one way or another is an interesting one in principle, but the execution is lacking. I can forgive that the way she almost pleads with the Outlander seems pretty out of character, but as xLetalis observed in his review of KotET (warning, contains spoilers for the ending) the whole dark side cut scene is just weird. Scorpio is plugged into the console already, why withdraw and ask for permission to upload herself? And why, after standing right in front of said console the entire time, is she suddenly too far away from it to reach it in time if you deny her? Yeeeah...

Finally, I always feel terrible for the Gemini droids in this chapter. While Scorpio granting them independence did not work out well for the Alliance, there was still something noble about it in a way. Seeing Vaylin erase all their progress on a whim to make them into mindless slaves again, so they won't shy away from blowing each other up for no reason if she commands it, is pretty damn horrible if you think about it. Yet it isn't really addressed again after this.

Still, I do really like the part you spend stomping around in that giant war droid. I'm not sure it's "in character" for all my Outlanders to look so smug when they take the pilot's seat, but I as the one behind the keyboard definitely enjoyed it

14/02/2017

Gearing Up

Even though they are ridiculously complicated and also very grindy if you want to gear up through PvP only, I've been quite happy with the changes to gearing that came with 5.1, and I've been enjoying the new boost to Command XP as well. I realise it's a bit silly, but I actually kind of like that the newly introduced complexity encourages me plan and think about my gear acquisition again.

From my point of view, the best way to get a full set of set bonus gear is now once again through operations. If you are part of a regular group that is familiar with the content, you can easily knock out two operations a night, which means four guaranteed gear drops in 8-man (something for half the group) plus potentially some bonus loot too. My own guild has mostly been clearing hard veteran modes, which is good for set pieces with item rating 236. It feels good to finally fill those gear slots for which the Command crates have refused to provide so far.

Speaking of Command levels, I hit tier three just before the CXP event started, so the increased CXP gains have been yielding tier three crates at a nice clip. I actually got lucky and got both a 242 chest piece and a helmet out of them already. This actually does feel good now, as it feels like a lucky break and one less piece I need to actively hunt for, instead of making me think: That should have dropped thirty crates ago and why do I have no power over what gear I get?

I've even levelled my Sage healer alt to 70 and started taking her to story mode operations. Who cares about Command rank when I can get a full set of 230 from just running the content again? Good times. Now that the CXP packs that drop from the bosses are bound to legacy, I can also send those around and funnel them towards the character I want to boost the most - right now that means that the ones from my alt's runs go to Shin, but whenever she manages to complete her gear, I expect the packs to start going the other way round.

The ultimate plan is to get full 236 for my Commando (as far as possible - for example I'm not very likely to get the belt as that only drops from hard veteran mode Monolith and we've never actually killed that)... and then start looking at filling any gaps / upgrading the 236s to 242s via the PvP tokens. I'm slowly accumulating those via daily warzone matches as well; I'm just holding off on spending them for now to see what else might trickle in from the crates. Plus with just how grindy the system is right now, I kind of expect Bioware to reduce the prices in the not too distant future, which I would like to take advantage of too.

Yes, it's all bit complicated... but I have a plan again and I'm loving it.

12/02/2017

KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 4: Where Dreams Die

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter four! Though if you missed it...



The Story

The Gravestone and the Eternal Fleet are in hyperspace on their way to an unknown destination. Officially you are in command again, but the hyperdrive is locked and you can't really do anything. When the Gravestone drops out of hyperspace, Scorpio leaves on a shuttle and tells you that you've been brought to the place where she, the Gravestone and the Eternal Fleet originated. However, Vaylin and her remaining soldiers are still on board and sabotaging the ship, which requires you to go on a clean-up mission. Meanwhile, the Gravestone continues on her course into her home world, which is a giant Dyson sphere. However, while you are off to repair the omnicannon, Vaylin overwhelms the companions you left on the bridge and taunts you by threatening their lives. Before you can take any steps to fight back, a blinding light overwhelms you and you pass out.

You awake on the inner surface of the Dyson sphere, which has a post-apocalyptic look to it: technologically advanced, but covered in moss and with plant overgrowth everywhere. A strange diamond-shaped device decides to follow you around and basically serves as your temporary companion while you are unable to raise anyone on the comm. You wander around the largely abandoned area for a bit, only encountering "custodian" droids occasionally, some of them hostile, some of them neutral. There is a bonus mission here to access various "technoliths" around the area which teach you that the "planet" is called Iokath and that its former rulers enjoyed building experimental war machines. They also appear to have been very long-lived or at least good at thinking on a grand scale, as their experiments are described as stretching across millennia and involving the casual annihilation of entire civilisations.

One technolith presents you with a talking hologram that introduces itself as Aries and offers to provide you with more information but constantly seems to encounter errors when trying to do so. Torian shows up behind you, confirming that he had a similar experience to yours, passing out from the bright light and then waking alone on the surface. You also encounter some Knights of Zakuul fighting droids, presumably having been transported down from the Eternal Fleet, and get tasked to kill the lot of them... before you get any ideas about possibly wanting to co-operate with them in such a strange and hostile environment. Theron manages to reach you on the holo and informs you that he's found a safe place to gather. He also warns you however that since everyone seems to have been transported to the surface, it stands to reason that Vaylin must be about somewhere too.


The all-knowing player behind the keyboard is not kept in suspense for long, as we then cut to a shot of Vaylin waking in what appears to be something like a padded cell, only without the padding. She quickly gets angry about her imprisonment and starts using the Force to tear at the walls... when suddenly, he dead brother Thexan appears out of nowhere and tries to calm her down. Vaylin is wary of him but certainly distracted.

You meet with Theron, who's managed to get the rest of your crew together. He's been trying to find the Gravestone but his cybernetic scanners only go so far. You get a chance to talk to your remaining companions here - no proper cut scenes, but a little bit of dialogue voice-over plays when you click on them. Several of them express a feeling that you are being tested by being separated and placed in a strange environment. Vette has activated another technolith in the meantime and got Aries the hologram to tell her more about Iokath - basically the cliff notes of the codex entries you might already have uncovered earlier. It's also revealed that Zakuul was one of the worlds that was being experimented on.

A cut reveals Vaylin talking to Thexan some more, clearly torn between affection for her dead brother and scepticism about why a dead person would suddenly appear in front of her. Your chat with Aries is suddenly interrupted by Scorpio appearing on the holo. She confirms that you're all being used as test subjects and suggests working together to escape. You get interrupted once again by a bunch of droids storming your shelter, which you then have to fight off. After a drawn-out and annoying fight, Theron has the bright idea to shoot a panel that causes a force field to go up and prevents any more droids from coming in. Why couldn't you have thought of this earlier, Theron?


Vette fiddles with the technolith some more and almost accidentally opens another door. You don't know what lies behind it, but it's gotta be better than all those purifier droids, right? You eventually find another technolith, and realise that it's surrounded by lots of little capsules which appear to form a crypt for Iokath's creators. Through it, Scorpio manages to contact you again and tells you of how Iokath's own creations turned against their creators and killed them, though their memories were locked so they couldn't remember their origins.

We also see Vaylin trashing her cell and escaping, after having tricked "Thexan" into revealing that he's not really her brother. Turns out the one hiding behind Thexan's face was no other than Aries, the hologram that shared information earlier - he's not just a hologram, but another AI created by Iokath's founders, and now also the one in control of this entire world.

My Thoughts

Most of KotET's chapters stand pretty well on their own, but chapters four and five are very closely tied together, with chapter four being pretty much a set-up for everything that happens in chapter five. Because of that, not much really happens in chapter four! There isn't even a single dark/light or otherwise story-defining choice to be made here. However, I didn't even notice that myself until someone else pointed it out to me, because I was too busy admiring the pretty scenery. The overgrown parts of Iokath in particular are very good at creating an appropriate atmosphere and look beautiful to boot.


While the matter of the Gravestone, the Eternal Fleet and Scorpio's origins had come up repeatedly during Knights of the Fallen Empire, I have to admit I was kind of surprised to find KotET devoting two whole chapters to it, especially at this point. It all comes a bit out of left field and only has a fairly tenuous connection to the rest of the story in my opinion. I'd rather they had saved this particular plot thread for later and instead incorporated the scions into KotET somehow - they were one story thread that originally felt very important but then just vanished completely.

Anyway, even though the chapter's main purpose is to introduce you to Iokath and there isn't much else to it, I quite enjoyed it because Iokath is simply a fun place to be, which adds another reason to be excited about patch 5.2 (when we will return there).

Another interesting point to note is that even though both you and your companions as well as Vaylin and her subjects basically get trapped by a force more powerful than both of you here, this isn't used as an opportunity to allow both sides to find common ground or even form as much as a temporary truce. When you run into the Knights of Zakuul fighting droids, you just kill them both. At your temporary base, if you have Koth with you, he will say that a Zakuulan wanted to surrender to him but died to the droids before they could make it back together. Despite of the sheer magnitude of what you discover on Iokath, the story makes it very clear that you're supposed to still consider Vaylin your primary problem.

09/02/2017

The Best Classes to Take into KotFE / KotET

If you're someone who has returned to SWTOR for one of the "Knights of" expansions and already had more than one old character in the wings to take into the new content, you may have been wondering which class is the most suited for this purpose, based on how the new story plays out, as well as taking into account practical considerations such as what happens to your character's companions.

Well, I am here to give you the answer to this question! Or my own interpretation of it, anyway. Please note: I haven't actually completed the entire story on all of the eight base classes yet, but I think I've seen enough to be able to make an educated judgement. If you disagree with my choices, feel free to let me know in the comments! Also, be warned: Each class's analysis may contain spoilers for their origin (class) story. There will also be vague references to some things that happen in KotFE / KotET, but nothing I would consider a spoiler. Beware of actual spoilers in the comments though!


1. Jedi Knight

I think it's hard to deny that the knight was the class that KotFE and KotET were pretty much written for. KotFE and KotET largely focus on the Force ghost formerly known as the Sith Emperor, who was nothing but a mysterious background character for most of the story content of the base game... unless you were a knight. The knight is the only one who gets up close and personal with the Emperor in the 1-50 story, in a tale of epic struggle and revenge with culminates in you penetrating the very heart of the Sith Empire and striking down your foe on Dromund Kaas itself... or at least the body he was inhabiting at the time, as we find out later. Who else would be better suited to take him on after he returns? There's just no question about it. Sadly, no knight companions play a major role in the story (only T7 makes an appearance at all), but that doesn't outweigh just how tailor-made the storyline is for this class.

2. Sith Inquisitor

While the Emperor doesn't feature in the Sith inquisitor's class story, this class's origin tale is one of constant struggle. You want to make your mark upon the Empire and gain power, but you keep coming up against people more entrenched in the system than you, who try to manipulate and kill you. Also, there are those pesky Force ghosts. Guess what happens in KotFE / KotET? After having attained the lofty rank of Dark Council member by the end of your class story, being frozen in a block of Carbonite for five years is merely another setback of the type you're used to encountering, and after that, it's back to business as usual! Annoying ghost in your head threatening your life? Check! Proving your strength in the Force against mightier and mightier opponents? Check! Building a power base with the goal of rising to the highest possible rank? Check! I haven't seen this particular outcome myself yet, but I imagine that the ending of KotET must feel pretty damn satisfying as a Sith inquisitor, even if none of your old companions are officially by your side. (Two come back as Alliance alerts.)

3. Sith Warrior

Next to the knight, the warrior is the one other class who has a background with the Emperor in the base game... though unlike the knight, the warrior never actually meets him. (EDIT: I've been reminded that you do talk to his "Voice" once, but the point remains that he's quite distant compared to how personal things get with the knight.) You mostly erve as the Emperor's loyal enforcer via proxy, which puts you in an... interesting position in KotFE / KotET. As a bonus, one of the male warrior's potential love interests, Vette, returns as part of the main storyline, and by 5.2, only one warrior companion will remain missing. Good times! The reason I rate this below the Sith inquisitor despite of the personal connection to the Emperor is that things can actually get a bit awkward depending on your roleplaying angle. On my own warrior I was happy to offer my services to the Emperor's new incarnation, and at first there were some dialogue options that reflected this too... but gradually, they just disappeared, so that my character started being snarky and dismissive of her "boss" for no apparent reason. If you don't want to be friends with the Emperor however, jump right in and have fun!

  
4. Trooper

Much has been said about how the "Knights of" stories feel a lot more tailored towards Force users than your regular old heroes, and I strongly agree. Still, thinking about the non-Force users, the one that deals with the events of KotFE / KotET the best in my opinion is the trooper. Maybe I'm biased, but regardless of how you played your trooper while levelling up, they are used to waging war and taking charge to make things go their way while leading others into battle, and all the Force stuff aside, this is a lot of what KotFE / KotET is about. You may not necessarily want to rule the galaxy, but whether you've previously played the selfless hero of the people or the ruthless enforcer, you're used to fighting for a cause.

Also, with Elara Dorne being slated to make a return in 5.2, the trooper will be the first class to get all their old companions back. Okay, strictly speaking we can't re-recruit Tanno Vik, but who misses him anyway? At least we know what he's been up to.

5. Jedi Consular

I imagine that many would contest my decision to place a Force-using class below a non-Force user, but I do think it's justified at this point in time. Of all the Force users, the consular is definitely the least well-suited to the role of being the Outlander. Sure, you're a special snowflake in the Force all right, but from 1-50 you've mostly been a peace-keeper, diplomat and uncoverer of secret plots. Your enemies in the two "Knights of" expansions are remarkably resistant to negotiation, there's no real surprise in them wanting to kill you, and most of the time things come down to brute force. It's not that you can't do it, but it's not really your style.

Anyway, the main reason I've ranked the consular below the trooper right now is that not a single consular companion returns during the KotFE / KotET storyline, and even through the optional Alliance alerts you only get one of your original five companions back. Being a consular in a post-KotFE world is a lonely life. If they ever get all their companions back too, I would rank them above the trooper.

6. Imperial Agent

As we're getting closer to the bottom of the list, things start to become increasingly awkward. The agent is used to operating in the shadows, what's this about being thrown into the spotlight as some sort of "chosen one" and military leader?! I suppose the upside is that the agent is used to politics and to powerful Force users trying to make his or her life a misery, so that part fits. Also, two returning agent companions play significant roles in KotFE / KotET, which makes for some nice opportunities for some class specific dialogue.


7. Bounty Hunter

The bounty hunter loves to amass power and glory, but only for themselves, and they have little interest in fighting for a cause. In fact, the bounty hunter's story is one of someone who doesn't like to be tied down. Why they would actually want to lead the Alliance instead of setting off to do some actual bounty hunting or pretty much do anything else to further their own personal agenda instead of championing someone else's cause is a bit of a mystery. At least two bounty hunter companions also return during the story and get some good lines.

8. Smuggler

Last and definitely least in this case, we have the smuggler. I suppose if you took your smuggler fully dark side, aiming to become an underworld boss, there is an argument to be made for you being a powerful figure and having some interest in taking charge, but like the bounty hunter you're more out for yourself than for any grand cause, so why a smuggler of all people would lead the Alliance is a bit... eh. There's also hardly anything more pathetically out of place than a blaster-whipping scoundrel repeatedly going up against extremely powerful Force users in supposedly epic one-on-one duels. To top it off, no smuggler companions feature in the KotFE / KotET storyline, and only two out of five return as Alliance alerts. As much as I hate to say it (as the basic smuggler story is one of my favourites): taking them into the current content is just not very rewarding at all.

It's worth noting that the above ranking is based on taking an existing character into KotFE / KotET. If you use a token from the Cartel Market to start at a higher level, many of the concerns listed here won't really apply, since you don't have a detailed backstory and can't really miss companions you never interacted with. In that case I would simply say: Force using classes > non-Force users.

Agree/disagree? Share your opinion in the comments!

06/02/2017

Boosts Abound

Bioware continues to announce additional changes to the Galactic Command system at what I consider to be a pretty impressive pace. I just wish they were able to apply this enthusiasm to something more interesting and fun than fixing a broken endgame!

Aside from various CXP gain increases for specific activities and additional ways to help out your alts via the legacy system, the most interesting part of this latest announcement, to me, was that they are holding a (C)XP event until the release of the next major patch at the start of April, effective from this Tuesday. Going above and beyond anything they have done previously, this isn't just going to be double XP, but a 250% increase to both Command and regular XP.

I think Bioware's willingness to introduce a boost of that size for a whole two months and on such short notice shows that the current rate of Command levelling must be really slow for most players and that they expect to permanently increase CXP gains by a pretty significant amount. However, running it as an "event" first gives them an opportunity to milk it for additional PR, and if they change CXP gains at its end to "only" 200% of the old rate (just as an example), they'll still come out of it looking pretty generous. I don't think we'll see a reduction back to anywhere near the current levels once it's all over. It's hard to go back once you've opened the floodgates to that extent.

Of course this doesn't solve the issue of the Command crates' contents being useless way more often than not, but they've said that they are still planning to look into that as well. The main thing that actually worries me is that it's been suggested that Bioware might then also use the next major patch as an opportunity to add another tier of Command levels. Just imagine finally being able to make some progress with building a set during the event, and then they immediately make your gear obsolete again! I'd hate that, or at the very least I would consider April way too early to take that kind of step. Expect much outrage if they do.

However, the thing that has me most baffled about the upcoming event is that it's going to increase normal XP gains by 250% as well. I've expressed a strong dislike for things like double XP weekends in the past, so I'll admit that I'm coming at this from a biased point of view, but even I could see the benefit of changes such as allowing players to level up via the class story only. This however? I do not see the point at all. Levelling is already super fast anyway, why boost it by another 250%?

Only in my last post I was writing about how as a long-time player there is little incentive to want to rush alts to the level cap right now, but I dare say that for new players, levelling too quickly may even be detrimental to their overall experience. Level sync has fortunately alleviated the issue of outlevelling content before you're done with the story, but that doesn't mean that it's not a problem at all. As soon as a player hits fifty for example, he or she starts running into quests on the fleet and on his or her ship that will casually spoil the end of the class story in their intro, at a point when the power-levelled character is unlikely to be anywhere near it yet. And that's without even getting into things like giving people time to get to grips with their character's abilities.

I just don't see who the 250% levelling XP portion of the event is supposed to for. Or are there people among my readers who actually find the notion enticing? I'm genuinely curious.

03/02/2017

Taking Stock

I've been feeling a bit aimless in game lately, and thought that I might as well write about it. Warning: incoming ramble!


I've been rather annoyed with Galactic Command from the start. I pretty much hated the idea when I first found out about it. Nonetheless, I tried to give the system a fair shake when it actually came out, and I won't deny that I had fun during the first week at least, if for no other reason than that my inner explorer enjoyed jumping into different activities to see how everything worked. However, I was already tired of it by week two, for all the reasons I won't rehash here. I was very relieved when Bioware did at least some partial backpedalling in regards to how much we have to rely on those random Command crates very quickly. I'm happy to say that since 5.1, I 've pretty much been able to stop worrying about my Command rank at all. Instead I'm thinking about how to make the most out of combining operations drops with the new PvP gear upgrade system. Neither requires my constant focus, so I'm also free to play alts again.

Somewhat to my surprise, I'm not feeling very motivated though. For all the high level characters I already have, I've only taken three more up to 70 so far, even though levels 65 to 70 go by very quickly. I'm just lacking an incentive. What reason is there to even level up this far? I can actually only think of very few:

1) Difficult operations and challenging solo content like the Eternal Championship. Considering that you need gear for those and even with the already implemented improvements to gearing, gearing up at max level is still very grindy, it's still better to focus on one main for a while instead of spreading yourself too thin across multiple alts.

2) Starting the "Knights of" expansions requires level 60 (I think?), and questing your way through them sort of levels you up automatically. However, as I've said many times before: I don't like repeating such linear story content too often in too short an amount of time. Playthrough number three, only two months after launch, is already dragging a bit.

3) To do other content that is only accessible at 70. Um... uprisings? I think they are OK, but not so exciting that I want to level up additional alts purely to play them on different characters.

In fact, a lot of the things I enjoy in game don't require a very high level at all. The classic levelling game is by its very nature the domain of low-level characters, as it's not repeatable. You can access (nearly) all the classic flashpoints in the game from level 15. Story mode operations become accessible from level 50, which is somewhat higher but still a benchmark that most of my alts reached a long time ago. PvP is a go from level 15, GSF even from level 1.

I would even go so far as to say that a lot of this stuff is more fun when you're lower level. Lowbie PvP is a lot more straightforward and you don't have to worry about the gear gap that awaits you at 70. And regular flashpoints are a lot more fun when they actually challenge you and you get XP for running them!

Also, even after having been freed of the worst "shackles" of Galactic Command, it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth to constantly be reminded of it at level 70. It may be a bit irrational, but I'm actually a little annoyed when I log on an alt and the game reminds me that I'm "only" Command rank 10 on that one or whatever. Stop judging me, game!

It seems that SWTOR really is living up to the dream that is the opposite of something that sometimes gets criticised about WoW: that all the fun is focused on being at the level cap. In SWTOR, all the fun really is at the lower levels.

In many ways I appreciate that, but as I said at the beginning of this post, I'm also feeling a bit aimless right now. If I don't have something to strive for on my alts, what do I do with them? Other than log them once in a blue moon when I feel a sudden urge to do PvP as a dps Commando or run a random flashpoint as a lowbie Merc?

I think it's telling that the time I had the most fun with the game last year was probably during the much maligned Dark vs. Light event, because it gave me goals related to levelling. I also kept busy a lot by using lowbie characters for various "projects", such as my flashpoint levelling experiment or researching specific flashpoints once a fortnight to wrap up my Flashpoint Friday series. I guess I need to find myself some new projects for those alts below max level.

30/01/2017

KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 3: Dark Reunions

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter three! Though if you missed it...



The Story

Chapter two ended with the player seeing Koth inadvertently inviting Vaylin and Scorpio onto the Gravestone because he stepped right into a trap of theirs. Chapter three starts with the Alliance receiving a distress call from Koth, asking for help. You decide to go and help him even if he stole the Gravestone from you at the end of Fallen Empire... because obviously you don't want Vaylin of all people to have it!

When you arrive, Vaylin and Scorpio are sitting on the Gravestone's bridge, puzzling over why the ship remains shut down and refuses to let them reactivate it. The Alliance fleet engages the nearby Eternal Fleet ships while you and Lana board the Gravestone via a boarding pod.

You land in the power generation room, stuck behind a locked door and having to play a little mini-game that involves remotely manipulating a mouse droid outside to open up the doors. On your way to the bridge you take out a couple of skytrooper patrols until you suddenly run into Koth. If he stole the Gravestone from you, he makes an awkward peace offering, which you can accept or reject, but for the moment you need to work together anyway, while Lana tries to create a distraction. Koth explains that he was suspicious of Scorpio from the beginning and installed additional security measures to prevent her from taking over the ship, which is why it's floating dead in space at the moment. However, on top of this he fitted the ship with a so-called quantum bomb, which will cause it to go boom big time if Scorpio actually manages to break the code and takes control, meaning your first priority is to disarm said bomb. On the bridge, Vaylin and Scorpio can be seen turning to torturing Koth's crew to learn more about the encryption he used.


When you make it to the bridge yourself in order to take the last step to disable the fail-safe however, nobody but the crew is there. Koth is confused to find his security broken, yet no actions taken that would have triggered the bomb. After he tells his crew to get to the escape pods, Scorpio calls on the holo to say that she manipulated Vaylin into leaving the bridge so you would have time to disarm the bomb, as she doesn't want to see the Gravestone destroyed either. Now Vaylin has cornered Lana at the bomb's actual location however, and two powerful Force users duking it out right there is bound to get dangerous.

You and Koth rush to the Dark Sanctuary, where you find Vaylin pounding Lana into the ground. You interfere and fight her, but she is powerful. Suddenly Valkorion performs his time-stop trick again and steps between you. Vaylin snarls at him, expressing her hatred of the fact that he caged her as a child (which I think is the first time we hear about the events of the KotET trailer in character), but he counters by uttering the phrase "Kneel before the dragon of Zakuul", which has a strange effect on Vaylin, shutting down her ability to fight. She flees the scene, but the fight did set off the bomb's timer. You rush around the nearby rooms to bring down the shield around it, so Koth can disarm it. There is a bonus mission to do this within three minutes, but I have no idea what happens if you take longer... I guess the game just pretends that you still made it in time, you just don't get the bonus reward?


Valkorion explains that Vaylin has been conditioned to respond to the phrase he used and that it renders her unable to use her powers. Meanwhile, Theron arrives in a shuttle with reinforcements and informs you that the Eternal Fleet has jumped into hyperspace. Koth is pleased that the situation has seemingly been resolved to everyone's satisfaction - though if he stole the Gravestone from you and you refused his peace offer, you can punish or even kill him for it now.

Vaylin is shown limping onto the bridge and tries to attack Scorpio for playing her, too, but under the influence of the conditioning she can't bring her full powers to bear. Meanwhile Scorpio announces that the technology that created her, the Eternal Fleet and the Gravestone all come from the same origin, and that she's about to take the Gravestone elsewhere.... "home" as she calls it shortly afterwards. The ship jumps into hyperspace with you and your crew still on board, and you are unable to do anything about it.

My Thoughts 

Chapter three is probably the shortest of all the KotET chapters, and mainly seems to serve two purposes: to resolve "the Koth situation" and to reveal Vaylin's secret weakness.

Initially I found it kind of odd that Vaylin of all people would go and set a trap for Koth herself. Doesn't she have an army of knights that can do that sort of thing for her? It's a well-worn storytelling trope that the ruler/boss likes to lead the charge themselves even if it doesn't necessarily make sense from a strategic point of view, but still... yet as I thought about it some more, I realised that it actually does make a lot of sense for Vaylin of all people. She appears to have been the executive arm of the law for the entirety of Arcann's reign, and maybe even before that, and she doesn't really take well to just sitting on the throne and letting others get things done. This makes for an interesting contrast with Arcann in particular, whose habit of perpetually sitting on the throne and brooding instead of actually doing anything for most of KotFE was pretty legendary and became the butt of many jokes. The way you and Vaylin chase each other in circles around the Gravestone while continuously missing each other does get a little silly though. There aren't that many different corridors to the bridge!

Valkorion interfering directly and revealing Vaylin's conditioning is an interesting twist. It also gives our characters an opportunity to learn in game what we as players already knew from the trailer: that Valkorion had Vaylin locked up as a child. (Previous mentions of him restraining her powers at a young age had been very vague.) Seeing her frightened expression when her powers desert her makes her at least a little bit sympathetic, despite of her cruelty and raving insanity.


As far as the Koth situation went, I had mixed feelings. People have been clamouring for an opportunity to kill him since the moment he betrayed you at the end of KotFE chapter ten (if you made certain choices), not to menion him running off with the Gravestone afterwards. If that happened to you, getting your revenge does feel pretty satisfying. You get to kind of "betray him back" by coming to his aid at first and then killing him once the worst of the danger has passed, and seeing Lana's reaction in particular is quite heart-wrenching: She is visibly pained by seeing him die, but still stands by stoically as you execute him, knowing that he earned it.

As someone who leans more towards the light side and who had more characters with friendly relations with Koth though... it's all a little disappointing. Like Koth's brief appearance in chapter one, the events of chapter three kind of feel like they were written specifically with Koth the Betrayer in mind. If he's a loyal member of your Alliance, why is he off chasing Eternal Fleet ships in the middle of nowhere? Why is this former soldier that came off as clever and resourceful during the first nine chapters of KotFE acting like such a buffoon now? Not to mention that from my point of view, I would have been more interested in how a loyal Koth would have come to reconcile his adoration for his Eternal Emperor with the fact that I was the one who killed said Emperor in KotFE chapter one and that I continued to fight against his unliving spirit until the end. But I guess that would have required more complexity than they had time for.


Oh, I mustn't forget: I did like the inclusion of yet another little puzzle segment, this time with the mouse droid, though I wish you didn't have to restart from scratch after every step and could instead do the whole segment in one go (if you are skilled enough).