Flashpoint Friday: The Black Talon

For this series, I tend to either pick a specific flashpoint and run it, to make sure I remember everything correctly, or I decide to write about a flashpoint that I just happened to run that week for some other reason. With my flashpoint levelling experiment I've been all over the place, making it hard to focus on any single instance, so I decided to just go for the first one I visited this week: The Black Talon.

Iconic: Captain Orzik and Lieutenant Sylas

General Facts

The Black Talon is the Imperial equivalent of the The Esseles: the optional flashpoint you encounter just after you've finished your starter planet and are about to move on to Dromund Kaas. Both were tacticals before tactical flashpoints were even a thing, and somewhat surprisingly they've undergone nearly no changes with 4.0 - unlike all the other flashpoints, these are still limited to levels 10-15 on the group finder, probably because Bioware was keenly aware of how strongly their stories are tied to you being low-level and new. This means that you get scaled to level 10 instead of up to 65 when you enter. They did however also add a solo mode version for both factions' flashpoints that you can do whenever you like. I tried the one for the Black Talon and having a GSI droid by my side felt like complete overkill, considering that these flashpoints were already easily soloable for a skilled player before 4.0.

Story (spoilers)

Like the Esseles, the Black Talon is all about the story.

Shortly after you've boarded the Black Talon to travel to Dromund Kaas, you're greeted by the ship's second in command, Lieutenant Sylas, who points out that "your" droid is waiting for you with a message in the nearby conference room. You go to investigate and meet NR-02, an innocent enough looking protocol droid, who soon identifies himself as being programmed for much more unpleasant tasks. (I'm sure I wasn't the only one who had to look up "calumniation" in the dictionary.) He gets you in touch with Grand Moff Kilran, who wants the Black Talon to intercept the Republic ship Brentaal Star and kill or capture an Imperial traitor on it who is only known as "the General" throughout the entire story. The Black Talon is uniquely positioned to achieve this, but its captain has refused to obey Kilran's orders, which is why the Moff wants you to usurp command and get the job done yourself.

You have to fight your way to the bridge and kill some Imperials on the way. Captain Orzik puts up a brave face as you arrive and threaten him, justifying his decision by saying that what Kilran demands is simply impossible. You have the option to merely relieve him of command or kill him.

Having assumed command one way or the other, you chase down and engage the Brentaal Star, and it spits out some pods in defense. If you let Orzik live, he'll identify them as a threat and have them shot down, which leads to you being boarded by a regular boarding party instead. Once you defeat the Republic boarders, Orzik presents you with a small chest of extra goodies which he had his crew put together, since you're all working together now after all.

If you killed Orzik however, the much less experienced Lieutenant Sylas, now effectively Captain, will tell the crew to ignore the pods, causing the ship to get swarmed by a bunch of sabotage droids. You then have to go and fight those off instead.

Once you've repelled the attack, you fly over to board the Brentaal Star and fight your way inside to kill or capture the general, dispatching of a Mon Calamari war veteran and a Jedi padawan in the process. Eventually you find the General, who is a squat, elderly cyborg and already wounded. He babbles about what terrible plans both factions have already made to prepare for war, a dialogue which is fun to come back to as a max level player as you actually know what he's talking about by then. You have the option of taking him prisoner or outright killing him. Then you return to the Black Talon.

"I had nothing to do with any of this, honest!"

If you left Captain Orzik alive, everything is well and everyone is pleased. If you killed him however, the crew has panicked in your absence and ended up shooting each other, so that the bridge is littered with nothing but corpses. Or that's what NR-02 says happened anyway... considering his earlier declaration of being programmed for manslaughter and calumniation, you may have to take that with a grain of salt. Grand Moff Kilran is happy either way and you can either continue to Dromund Kaas or return to the fleet. (NR-02 assures you that he can pilot the ship even with everyone else dead.)


You fight mostly Republic soliders and droids, but also some Imperial ones, when you take over the ship at the start. The lesson here is that the Empire does not value the lives of its subjects very highly. NR-02 even comments: "If you are concerned about the loss of life, I assure you - the deaths of all injured crew members will be strategically insignificant."

Like on the Esseles, the boss encounters are all very basic and geared towards players who are new to the game, though I think the ones on the Black Talon are less interesting overall than their Republic counterparts. (I admit that my Republic bias might be playing into this however.) Only Commander Ghulil, the Mon Cal war veteran, is really worth noting because he teaches players not to stand in fire (quite literally, as he drops probes that spit fire).

Like the Esseles with its encounter with Sith apprentice Vokk, the Black Talon tries to make a big deal out of you meeting (what's supposed to be) your first Jedi in the form of Yadira Ban, even if she's only a padawan, but she just doesn't come across as very threatening - maybe because she's a pink twi'lek with a squeaky voice? She has one noteworthy ability where she pulls you in and then does some damage if you don't run away from her quickly enough, but it's only really dangerous on hardmode.

Yadira Ban - just not that threatening.

Speaking of hardmode, while I haven't run the Black Talon on hard since 4.0, it's interesting to note that at level 50 it used to be known for having by far the easiest hardmode of all flashpoints, to the point where you didn't even need a full group to do it. This is an interesting contrast to its Republic equivalent, which originally had one of the hardest of all hardmodes.


I could write a lot of the same stuff here that I said about the Esseles: that it's an amazing narrative experience the first time but can get tedious when you have to re-run it for endgame rewards. However, instead I'd like to focus on the differences between the Black Talon and the Esseles.

Both serve to introduce you to your faction's storyline in a way, and they really highlight the differences between the two factions. While both flashpoints are about a small ship getting into big trouble, their stories are almost complete opposites in other ways. Where the Esseles is operating in pure self-defense, trying to fight off an Imperial attack, the Black Talon is on the offense, hunting down a traitor. On Republic side the main characters of your faction that you interact with are a shrewd diplomat, a somewhat cowardly officer and a fearless security chief. On Imperial side on the other hand you deal with a ruthless droid, a bloodthirsty Moff and an Imperial crew who desperately want to do the right thing but are incredibly frightened by the power plays going on, which is really a pretty good summary of what Imperial life is like! The only thing missing is a capricious Sith bossing everyone around, but effectively the player gets the chance to play that role if they choose to play a Sith character.

It's also worth noting that in terms of narrative and gameplay, the Black Talon has far fewer twists and turns than the Esseles, but manages to make your choices feel quite a bit more meaningful. The singular choice of whether you let Captain Orzik live or not decides not only which boss encounter you will face at the start (either the boarders or the lead sabotage droid) but also the fate of the entire Black Talon's crew. Whether to kill or spare the captain was actually a part of Bioware's early marketing for the game, supposed to highlight the importance of choices. They even gave out badges after demos where people got to try out the Black Talon so they could announce their choice to the world - too bad that kind of thing didn't carry over into more content.


Flashpoint Levelling: Up to 29

I wasn't planning to make my next post about my flashpoint levelling experiment quite so soon, but I'm progressing so quickly that I feel like I need to write it all down right now or I won't be able to keep up. In my last post I mentioned being level 17 after doing the Black Talon and completing associated quests. Four flashpoints later I'm already 29! Those levels are sure flying by, and I feel like I've already learned a lot.

By the way, you'll never guess which flashpoint I got as my first random after the Black Talon. I was so full of anticipation, maybe slightly worried that I'd get something that was originally tuned for level 60 and which might turn out to be really hard... and then I got: Hammer Station, the original 15-21 flashpoint. Woot?

Hammer Station
I levelled: 17-20 (and then dinged 21 from handing in the "do one random flashpoint" weekly, which once again gave way more XP than is reasonable at this level)

I had barely set foot into this flashpoint when I realised that something was off with my bars. I'd copied my keybinds over from my main and had tried to arrange my abilities in the same way, but while doing so I had been sloppy in terms of identifying which Mercenary "scan" corresponded to which Commando "probe". Once I'd sorted that out, I realised to my horror that I didn't have my free heal yet (Kolto Shot)! As a result all our pulls consisted of me frantically spamming expensive heals on people until I overheated, then Vent Heat and pray that everything would be dead before I was full on heat again. Fortunately I was able to train Kolto Shot after that run - apparently it unlocks at level 18 now.

Despite of me being woefully underequipped in the healing department, we did reasonably well. The other group members were three damage dealers of level 28, 50 and 65 respectively, and they seemed to have a healthy amount of interest in their survival (they clicked kolto stations, and the Sorcerer would bubble people and add some heals of his own if things got hairy). At a higher level I might have felt a little insulted by their efforts and their lack of faith in my ability to heal, but to be honest in that run I really wasn't very reliable. Still, in the end we only had one painful incident with multiple deaths, and that was on "that" pull at the start, which everyone knows is a pain. I was the only one who survived, because after everyone else had gone down I ran for it like a little girl until the rest of the group caught back up again and returned to finish off the rest of the pull.

Even though we did OK on them, some of the bosses also seemed to hit quite hard. The tunneler droid's debuff on whoever had aggro seemed to inflict almost hardmode levels of pain (and I had no dispel yet /cry), and Battlelord Kreshan's AoE similarly seemed to slice anyone's health to bits who just happened to stand in it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I picked up scavenging as one of my crew skills, so I had a grand old time with that, though I noticed that scavengable corpses seem to disappear more quickly now if you don't grab them right away... I'm pretty sure it's not just my imagination. It's also worth noting that since all the 15-65 flashpoints officially scale you up to 65 now, any mats you gather in there will be rank eight. So running flashpoints for specific mats, like Red Reaper for Electrum back in the day, is definitely a thing of the past.

What I didn't mention was that I picked up slicing as my third crew skill! I have no expectation to level it at this point, but I was curious whether just having it, even at level 1, would allow me to access various slicing contraptions in flashpoints. The answer is yes! I found the elevator that commenter Joseph Brown mentioned in my Flashpoint Friday post about Hammer Station and greatly impressed my party by being able to unlock not just one but two shortcuts for us.

Queen of the unlockable shortcuts

When we did the little light/dark side choice about halfway through the flashpoint, one of the dps instantly instructed us to "spam that space bar", which gave me a bit of a nervous twitch, but since it was just that one really short cut scene with no dialogue, I wasn't too bothered. I just wonder why they were!

Overall, it was a pretty nice run though. I also realised that I really like the sound of Nico's Blasters (which I gave to my Merc to wield - not like I've had much other use for them so far).

After the flashpoint I was surprised to find that I actually had the debriefing quest to talk to Darth Malgus again at the holoterminal. I noted in my Flashpoint Friday about Red Reaper that these seemed to be gone with 4.0, but apparently that's just a Red Reaper bug or something, because Hammer Station apparently still has it, and so does Athiss which I did later (spoiler?).

Red Reaper
I levelled: 21-24

Speaking of the Red Reaper and its missing debriefing mission, that one came up next in my random queue. And yes, it still had no chat with Darth Malgus at the end to wrap it all up.

This was another run with three dps (of levels 47, 60 and 65 respectively) and went very smoothly, even though one guy said that he'd never done it before. If anything, I was the noob - I got myself knocked off that bridge near the end, and on my first attempt at running back I managed to aggro some turrets that we had skipped so I had to /stuck as I couldn't use the elevator while in combat.

Still not having a cleanse was annoying on Darth Ikoral, though not problematic. I was still glad to see Cure available on my trainer after that run.

Also, I got to slice another lift! Those crew skills are really paying off.

False Emperor
I levelled: 24-27

This was probably my worst run so far, though it was still far from terrible. This time my three dps (of levels 29, 50 and 60 respectively) just didn't seem particularly competent and flailed around a lot: standing in red circles with no regard for their health but hitting kolto stations when people were fine, breaking CC and generally showing little survival instinct. There were a fair few deaths but we muddled through. I just couldn't help but think that these guys would have been pretty screwed without a healer.

At the start someone also managed to start and space-bar through the entire intro conversation before I'd even zoned in properly.

After the second boss the level 50 left with a "sorry gtg". I pulled out Mako for the next pull and was rather amused to see her tiny little figure act as a tank. Then we got a level 17 dps as replacement.

HK-47 was seriously hard! And not just because of my fellow group members' flailiness; he just hit like a freaking truck every time he focused anyone. Sometimes I couldn't even keep people up with my single target heals and the kolto stations combined, though I managed to stay alive and kept at least one dps up for long enough for the other two that died to come running back. I can only imagine what a right nightmare that boss must be without a healer.

Finally, there was some minor random loot drama where people got annoyed with one guy for needing on a pair of boots. He apologised and said that it had been a misclick, offering them to anybody else who wanted them as they were BoE. The level 17 then declared that it was pointless now since they were already bound to the guy who had hit need. I commented to say that I thought she was mixing up WoW and SWTOR, as I can't remember Bioware ever implementing anything like that (but vaguely recall it being a thing in WoW a long time ago).

Towards the end of this flashpoint I got my first AoE heal, which was very gratifying.

I levelled: 27-29

Adding some dps 'cause my party's awesome.

Another relative softball, this flashpoint started off with a level 56 tank and two level 65 dps. I felt quite excited to run with my first tank! Of course he then had to "reboot" and dropped group after the first pull, just to be replaced by a level 16 dps. One of the level 65 damage dealers also left soon after, but was replaced by another dps of the same level.

Regardless, this run was super smooth and an interesting contrast to the False Emperor run that came before, because it felt like I was just along for the ride and these guys would have been completely fine without me. I even saw someone use crowd control once! Mostly it seemed to be the power of the high levels though, as the 65s were able to tank whole pulls without too much trouble, even though they should have been quite squishy.

It also felt like I was getting a lot less XP though (I only barely managed to hit 29, having gained less than two full levels that run), which makes me wonder whether the wonders of flashpoint XP don't work quite similar to the grouping bonuses for missions after all. Those are based on how much XP each party member is earning, which means that anyone at max level who doesn't actually earn experience themselves anymore also contributes little to nothing to the rest of the group's bonus XP. At least that theory would explain why this run seemed to net me so much less than the previous runs that all had either only one or no max-level characters in them. Something to keep an eye on in future runs.

But hey, at least I got to level my bioanalysis.


My Flashpoint Levelling Experiment

Like everything else, flashpoints have seen quite a bit of change in 4.0. All the levelling ones are tactical now, and people are complaining that they are too hard. At the same time, they now give crazy amounts of XP to levelling players, as does all group content. It seems that this is due to Bioware's changes to XP distribution in groups - you always used to get bonus experience for other party members completing quests, but now kill experience seems to scale with group size as well, which can lead to some pretty crazy results. I think I've seen one guy gain five levels in a single flashpoint, and I've heard of other players gaining nine levels while running a single storymode operation (though since operations don't become available until level 50, this doesn't have as much of an impact overall).

One of my guildies levelled a couple of his alts through flashpoints pre-4.0, but it wasn't nearly as viable then, as queue times could be long if you weren't a tank or healer, and you would only gain about one level per flashpoint at max. But now...? I decided that dedicating a character to levelling purely through random flashpoints would be an interesting experiment, both to see how long it will take with these accelerated levelling rates and short queues, and to gain more insight into the supposed difficulty of tacticals. And of course since I have a blog, it will provide me with yet another subject to write about! (Just like the Pugging Pally did back in the day...)

I decided to finally pick up the level one bounty hunter that I created months ago and that has been sitting on Hutta ever since. I wasn't really sure what to do with her for a long time - I kind of wanted to finally level a Mercenary... I know, what a shame that I don't have one already - it's my main's Imperial mirror class after all! But at the same time I've already gone through the bounty hunter story twice, and more recently than I've played through several of the other class stories, so I didn't really want to repeat it again too soon. This is of course the perfect solution: I'll finally get to add that Merc to my stable but I can ignore the class story for now without feeling bad about it, plus I'll get to flex my healing muscles while levelling up. Win-win.

I did of course have to level through Hutta first, since you can't queue for your first flashpoint until level ten, but that went super quick. I only did my class story, ignoring everything else including the planetary story arc, and was still up to level ten by the time I arrived at the fleet. (Full disclosure though: I accidentally applied an XP booster while emptying my mailbox of the dozens of starter goodies I get these days, and you can't click those off, so these weren't entirely regular XP numbers I got.)

Somewhat bizarrely, just puttering around the fleet actually got me to level 12, mainly due to the quest to learn about crew skills. It showed up as red difficulty when I picked it up, so I think that Bioware may have accidentally given that mission a higher level than it deserves. (Indeed, if the TORCommunity database is to be believed, the mission is currently classified as being level 55!) I picked up scavenging and bioanalysis, since I might actually be able to level those if I get the right instances.

Then it was time to queue for my first flashpoint... and somewhat ironically, I was off to a terrible start. I got a pop for The Black Talon within a couple of minutes, with one damage dealer and two tanks. (I was queued as healer myself.) However, we had barely started the first conversation when someone initiated a vote kick on one of the tanks. As far as I could tell he was only a bit slow to zone in, but the vote went through anyway and he was removed from the party. The two remaining players then asked for everyone to hit space bar, to which I replied that I'd rather not. We had barely finished the second conversation when both of them rage-quit the group, and I was left standing there alone, unable to re-queue for replacements since I wasn't officially in a group anymore.

Talk about awkward.

For the record, I've said before that I'm not completely anti-spacebarring. Especially in repeatable max-level content it often makes sense. But this was an optional instance for levels 10-15. If you are sick and tired of seeing that content, why even queue for it? Bah.

Anyway, somewhat disheartened for the moment, I put the two quitters on my ignore list so the system wouldn't try to put me into a group with them again and re-queued. Fortunately it only took another couple of minutes to find me a new group, this time consisting of one dps and two more healers. Fortunately group composition really doesn't matter at this level, so we weren't slowed down by our over-abundance of heals. I decided to take the initiative this time and immediately started the run with the words: "Hi, just to warn you: I like watching cut scenes." Nobody commented on that either way, but nobody complained either and it was a pleasant run in the end, something for which I was very grateful after the previous disappointment.

I finished the instance at level 15, but shot up to 17 when I handed in the "Introduction to Group Finder" quest, which seems to have the same "issue" as the crew skill one (not that I'm complaining). Next time the training wheels will come off, because now that I'm past level 15 I could literally land anywhere. You will find out how that goes!


For the Alliance! A Different Endgame

One of the bigger surprises of Knights of the Fallen Empire has been the game's alliance system. The devs had made some vague references to it before launch, but nobody really knew how it was going to work. Now we do, and while I've only invested a limited amount of time into it myself, I still think that it's a pretty neat little system, mainly for four reasons:

1) It ties neatly into the main storyline.
2) A lot of it can be done solo or with one other person.
3) It taps into players' urge to collect things and make their characters more powerful.
4) It's what I consider a "good" sort of grind.

Before KotFE's launch, I had kind of wondered how Bioware was going to handle the fact that we were initially only going to get access to nine chapters of a story that's supposed to be a total of sixteen chapters long. I had mental images of the game ending on a cliffhanger, leaving you with nothing but a "to be continued" screen. But no, the way they've handled it is actually pretty clever. The entirety of chapter nine is basically about introducing you to the idea that you need to build an alliance, and continuing to work on it after the chapter has officially ended feels perfectly natural. This should make the transition from the solo story to staying in the game for repeatable content and a persistent world a lot more palatable and might avoid some of the issues people had at launch, where they played through their class story with gusto but then quickly drifted away because they weren't interested in larger group content and it felt like their personal story had ended.

Following on from this, it makes sense that the alliance endgame is much more accessible to the solo player than more "traditional" endgame activities such as raiding. Yes, there are Star Fortresses to blow up and heroic missions to run, but all of these can be soloed, it's just easier and often more rewarding with an extra person in tow. I suspect that Bioware's hope here is that this content will serve as a stepping stone for mostly solo players to get them to start interacting with other people and maybe forge some social ties in the process, without throwing them in at the deep end.

At its core, the alliance system is also really simple. I've been trying to think about how to sum it up for this post, and really, what it comes down to is that you're collecting companions and increasing their power over time. They all have little stories associated with them, which isn't quite as good as a new chapter for the major storyline, but it's still a charming little piece of extra content, so why wouldn't you do it? If you want, you can stop after merely acquiring your new companions... but why not spend some time making your new friends and allies a little more powerful as well, meaning that they'll kick that much more butt whenever they are out questing with you?

This is where the "grind" comes in, though unlike a lot of people I'm not using that word in a negative way here. A lot of the time, when people talk about grind in an MMO, what they really mean is that there is some sort of repeatable content that is designed for you to... repeat it (duh). And that is not inherently a bad thing! The only times when grind becomes problematic is when it simply serves as a gating mechanic to a greater reward, so that people do it purely for the reward without actually enjoying the activity itself.

The reason I think that the alliance system is a good grind is that it isn't tied to any huge rewards, but at the same time there are so many ways to work on it that it would be hard to find a reason to not work on it at all. There are companion missions that push you towards trying out different activities, such as PvP or hunting down world bosses, but more importantly, you can buy both alliance resource boxes and companion gifts to progress your alliance for common data crystals from a vendor, and you can get those crystals from pretty much any PvE content these days. It's all tied together pretty nicely.

Is everything perfect then? Of course not, there is always something to criticise! First off, the "classic conversation interface" used for alliance missions comes as a bit of a shock to the system, whether you ultimately end up liking it or not. Bioware has officially pegged it as a nostalgic throwback to Knights of the Old Republic and as a way of giving people more than three conversation options, but it seems to primarily be a cost-cutting measure, even if Bioware won't admit that. They've always said that voice acting doesn't take up as much of the game's budget as people think and I believe that, but it's still obvious that it's got to be a money-saver to only pay for one voice-over per conversation (the NPC you're talking to) because the player character is suddenly silent (which means that you don't have to pay the sixteen voice actors that do the male and female versions of the player characters of all eight classes). Hell, if you make the NPC an alien that speaks Huttese or some other alien language, you can use a stock "alien gibberish" recording and don't need to record anything new at all!

I can't blame people for being cynical about this move, but cost-cutting and simplification measures like these were already a part Shadow of Revan, what with the side missions that didn't have true conversations, just a quick one-liner that played when you clicked on the NPC. And if I had to choose between that and the alliance conversation system, I'd take the latter any day - at least it's still interactive! It's also something that is only being applied to these specific side missions and the main storyline will continue to maintain its usual production quality. Honestly, once I got over the "shock" of how different it looked, I quickly got used to it.

The other concern is that in its effort to be accessible and optional, the alliance system may not prove "sticky" enough to keep players around that aren't also into some other part of the game, though obviously only time will tell. At the same time, the grindiness involved in actually collecting and levelling all the available companions could be considered alt-unfriendly (even if it's not a requirement for anything) and might put people off in a different way.

Lastly, I personally can't help but wonder what will happen to the whole system once new story content is released. As I said, the end of chapter nine ties pretty neatly into getting the player to work on the alliance system. But what happens once chapter ten comes out? I don't expect that our alliance will become irrelevant until closer to the actual end of the storyline, but is the progression from the main story to this different kind of endgame still going to feel natural as time goes on? Or will people have to backtrack once more chapters have come out? Or skip it altogether? I do worry a little that Bioware (like many other MMO developers, sadly) isn't keeping enough of an eye on how to make sure that their content remains viable for a long time and doesn't become pointless the moment the next expansion shifts the focus to something else again.


Wrath of the Wrath

Expansions and major game updates can do funny things to your expectations, plans and routines. I thought I was all set for Knights of the Fallen Empire, with both my main and two beloved alts having completed all the previous content and being ready to jump into the new story without missing out on anything.

However, I realised not long into my first playthrough of the new story chapters that I really didn't want to do my next one on one of the alts I had specifically prepared for this purpose, at least not immediately. Ever since the Outlander trailer we've known that Valkorion would ask the player to join him at some point, but I was kind of surprised that this choice already came up in chapter one. My trooper was never going to agree to this, even more so considering what happens just before that scene. But I also immediately knew that I really, really wanted to know what would happen.

The problem is, I don't enjoy playing dark side characters. If you look at my character page, you'll notice that most of them are light side, a couple are neutral, and only one or two are dark side (and even then not fully). Both of the alts that I had prepared for alternate playthroughs were paragons of virtue as well, and I couldn't see either of them accepting Valkorion's offer. The only character I have that I could imagine siding with him in a heartbeat was my Marauder - a rarely used alt that I can't play for toffee.

So my mission over the course of the last two weeks or so has been to get her up to scratch. I could have jumped straight into KotFE of course since she was level 60, but the thought of potentially locking myself out of some major storylines and leaving them unfinished didn't sit well with me. I pugged Temple of Sacrifice, since I had done most of the Shadow of Revan story but had abandoned it at the "storm the temple with a small strike team" stage. I did Makeb and Oricon, and was surprised by just how much fun Oricon still is, even on the nth replay. (The little lore holocrons allowed me to pretend that datacrons are still a thing.) I did Directive 7, Battle of Ilum and False Emperor on tactical to complete the storylines associated with them (and died a lot in the runs where we didn't have a healer, but otherwise things went quite smoothly and my groups were friendly). I went through the story on Ziost and found yet another fate for Agent Kovach. And eventually... it was time to step into the Knights of the Fallen Empire content.

As was to be expected, people are already criticising the KotFE choices for not mattering enough. It's certainly true that there are a lot of events that take place regardless of what you do - but to be honest I expected nothing else. Personally I still enjoyed making a lot of choices that were completely contrary to what my trooper had done, and I did see a lot of interesting reactions to those choices. I heard new lines that made me laugh, and I'm curious to see where it will all lead, because a lot of the moments when I was told that my actions would be remembered haven't had any obvious pay-off yet. I do suspect that more interesting developments are yet to come in the next seven chapters. And I was actually kind of impressed when after repeatedly flirting with Koth over the course of the story, he rudely rebuffed my Marauder when I tried to speak to him privately at the end of chapter nine - I guess he really did remember all those times I had been a jerk to his people!


Flashpoint Friday: Directive 7

I was surprised to see that Directive 7 had received a purple "main storyline" marker after 4.0, since its story is completely self-contained and other story-heavy flashpoints like Kaon Under Siege and Lost Island didn't receive the same distinction. This also means that D7 now has a solo mode. To activate it, just talk to the droid at the flashpoint entrance on your faction's fleet vanguard vessel. If you have another difficulty mode active in your mission log, such as [Tactical] Flashpoint: Directive 7 or [Hard] Flashpoint: Directive 7, you will have to abandon that first and then talk to the droid again.

General Facts

Directive 7 was originally designed for levels 47-50 and was therefore the first of the original endgame flashpoints that you were able to enter while levelling up (the next two opened up at level 48). Nowadays it's accessible as a tactical flashpoint from level 15 onwards, as hardmode from level 50, and - as already mentioned - it features a solo mode option as well.

There is a story quest associated with this flashpoint that starts at the main level of your faction's space station and still requires at least level 45 as far as I can tell, called Violent Uprising for Republic players and Immediate Vengeance for Imperial ones. Completing this flashpoint for the first time also awards a title: "the Deprogrammer". It's a bit of a clue: you're going to quell a droid uprising.


Directive 7 is filled with droids, with a couple of cyborgs thrown into the mix for fun. Another flashpoint that's a scavenger's dream! However, there really are a lot of mobs in D7, making it one of the longest flashpoints there is (or if it isn't, at least it feels that way). None of the trash pulls pose any real challenge either, there are just... so... many droids taking up space. For this reason D7 is one of the flashpoints where I've frequently seen people drop out as soon as they saw where the group finder had decided to put them, simply because they don't want to cope with the length of it. Others press on but urge everyone in the group to skip as much trash as possible, which can include crazy antics such as leaping over the rooftops of tents. I was never very good at those and appreciate groups who are willing to do things the "proper" way. There's also a bonus boss that requires you to kill lots of extra trash to be able to click on certain items. People rarely want to do him.

The lesser-known D7 bonus boss.

I suspect that the droid theme is at least partially responsible for the lack of variety among the bosses, who are all droids with one or two gimmicks and generally no personality. There's the first boss, who is a tank and spank with the occasional interrupt to stop him repairing himself and some weak turret add spawns. There's Interrogator, the boss that tries to "replicate" members of your party occasionally, which sounds super cool in theory, except that the "copies" he makes look nothing like your character and are just generic cyborgs. (It was funny though when he bugged shortly after launch and just kept creating endless clones of certain party members.) There's Bulwark, "the one with the buttons (consoles)". There's the one who is similar to the first boss, only that his turret adds are large and dangerous.

The one shining beacon in this sea of mediocrity is Mentor, the leader of the renegades himself, who oozes supervillain personality. When you first encounter him in the form of three assassin droids, he rotates shields around their bodies so that you have to keep switching targets, which is not difficult but can certainly keep a pug on their toes. I also encountered a funny bug on this fight once where the shield on the last droid never really fell off and it would only become vulnerable to attacks for about five seconds once every minute. It took my party a looong time to kill it.

The final fight against Mentor's processing core is pure mayhem, with a giant claw from the ceiling chasing people, big and little turrets shooting the players from all corners of the room, add spawns, and a desperate struggle to destroy parts of Mentor whenever they become vulnerable. Essentially you're fighting the whole room and it feels pretty epic. At lauch I used to find this fight highly challenging to heal due to the high mobility requirements, but these days that should be much less of an issue for most characters.


My impression of the solo mode version was that all the fights are severely toned down, to the point where you could hardly even recognise what some of the mechanics were supposed to do anymore. During a test run on my level 50 Vanguard to see what it was like, I killed the first boss without even realising that I had no healer and that my GSI droid had despawned three pulls ago.

Story (spoilers)

Both Empire and Republic have heard of horrible massacres happening in various places, with thousands of people getting killed by their droids. A group of renegades that calls itself Directive 7 (thus the name of the flashpoint) is threatening to take it even further and wipe out all organic life in the galaxy. Slightly drastic, perhaps? Fortunately at least one of their kind agrees that it is all a bit of an overreaction and has tipped you off that their centre of operations is located on a moon called Zadd. You travel there and meet with your mysterious tipster, a droid called C5-M3 who kind of looks like your standard protocol droid but it's implied that he actually used to be of the medical persuasion. He has no love for the "organics" either but thinks that no good will come of "sinking to your level" by trying to wipe out your kind completely.

You encounter Mentor, the leader of Directive 7, as he controls the bodies of three assassin droids and later find out that he experimented on "organics" by turning them into cyborgs in hopes of "fixing their flaws". After defeating the assassin droids, you fight your way through to Mentor's processing core and destroy it before he can unleash a signal upon the galaxy that would cause millions of droids to turn on their masters.

At the debrief with your faction contact which is part of the associated story quest, it is suggested that C5-M3, who escaped with you, should either be destroyed (Empire) or pressed back into service (Republic). C5-M3 thinks that this is ridiculous of course, as he is a free being and not beholden to anyone, however it is you who gets to make the final call on his fate. I think this is one story where I've actually never picked the dark side option of destroying or enslaving C5 because... this is the guy who just prevented a galaxy-wide massacre and you want to punish him for it!? Are you for real?!


Directive 7 is a great example of how you can use group content to tell a compelling story without making anyone feel like they are missing out if they don't do it, as its narrative is completely self-contained. While the premise of a droid rebellion wanting to kill everyone is slightly reminiscent of cheesy sixties sci-fi ("Killer Robots from Zadd!"), it does play out in an interesting manner, and it does make you wonder about the issue of droid rights. After all, if they are sentient beings, why should they have to be slaves? It's a no-brainer for the Empire of course, where actual slavery is accepted as well, but in the Republic it's at least been a matter of discussion (according to the associated codex entry anyway). The sheer size of the issue does kind of make you wonder however just how the story manages to be this self-contained, and how nobody else in the entire game seems to have heard of these droids that supposedly came close to wiping out the entire known galaxy.

On the other hand, D7 also goes to show once again that long and story-heavy flashpoints don't mesh well with groups of strangers running content through a randomised group finder system. I haven't quite seen it inspire Esseles HM levels of hatred from people who just want a quick run, but it's certainly come close.


Drowning in Gear

I'm having trouble adjusting to the way endgame gearing works in 4.0. This may sound strange, considering that the changes they made to stats were supposed to simplify things, but my problem isn't so much that it's too complicated, but that I feel drowned in options and don't really know what's worth pursuing anymore.

You see, for the past four years, I was always able to categorise any drop of gear quite quickly with a simple set of questions. If I was more artistically inclined I would draw you a flowchart, but it's simple enough that I can write it down as well:

Does this item have the right main stat for my class? yes/no
If yes, does this item have the right secondary stat for my class (read: power)? yes/no
Is it an upgrade for me? yes/no
If the answer to all of the above is no, is it something I could use for an alt or companion?

Now, if I actually got this far, this is where it could get a bit complicated with legacy gear transfers and the like, but a large amount of drops fell pretty clearly into the "no" category right from the start. Greens were pretty much always vendor trash once I learned to use moddable gear, and the same was true for a lot of blues, though I did occasionally put those up on the GTN if they had good stats.

Since 4.0, everything has the right main stat for my class, and almost everything has the right secondary stats. I feel like I have to consider absolutely every drop for viability and it's honestly kind of tiring. In ops, I quickly defaulted to only caring about the items with set bonuses, simply to reduce the number of drops that I actually have to think about. I'm actually finding crappy excuses to not roll on things purely so I don't have to bother, such as "hm, from the looks of it that's a Jedi robe", even if such distinctions don't really exist anymore.

At the same time the fact that companion performance is now independent of gear means that the market for selling gear for them has absolutely collapsed. I've been trying to sell some greens that I think look reasonably nice (since it's all cosmetic now), but judging the value of a piece of gear based on purely aesthetic reasons is a lot harder than simply comparing stats. Some of the new companions also have no gear slots at all other than their weapon. And even there variety seems to have been reduced - for example Aric Jorgan stopped using his assault cannon since he has now been turned into a sniper like several other companions (which, to be fair, is consistent with his back story but... after four years, really?) so the only companion that might still have a use for that type of weapon is Sergeant Rusk. Off-hands for companions have been eliminated from the game entirely!

It just feels like there's been a huge amount of inflation in terms of gear drops when you compare the amount of gear provided by the game to how little people actually need anymore. With mastery there are no truly wasted drops anymore, and in a throwback to the way operations worked at launch, Bioware has implemented a "bonus drop" system, where a couple of people get a non-tradable, random non-set item assigned to them off each operations boss, so there is more loot going around than ever. Yet where I used to have four companions that could use my hand-me-downs, I now have none. (If I want to change the look of someone's outfit, that's really very different.) The moment my first alt hit 65, I had already almost a full second set of level 65 ops gear waiting for her in the bank, and I keep thinking that I really need to get more of my alts to 65 purely so that all that gear has somewhere to go.

Oh, and remember how legacy gear used to be something rare and coveted? The new supply boxes drop a piece of legacy armour each, guaranteed. I've been vendoring legacy gear because there's just so much of it.

It all just feels kind of wrong right now, though I hope that I'll adjust with time. I feel like SWTOR Economics should write an article about this...


When Old Raids Are New Again

Before Knights of the Fallen Empire launched, I made an announcement on our guild forums that we were going to take it easy for the first couple of weeks of the expansion, since we wanted to give everyone the time they needed to finish the new story and get comfortable with any changes before we were going to organise any group content. But something funny happened: Everyone completed the new storyline really quickly, and then they wanted to raid.

My pet tank and I both had the week of KotFE's official launch off, and after having gone through the story in early access week, we were free to organise operation runs every single day of the week. In fact, these runs were so popular that we frequently had to upgrade the ops size to 16-man, something that we haven't had to do in quite a while. We all knew that those energy levels wouldn't and couldn't last, but it's still been exciting to feel that renewed enthusiasm in the air. It's been fun to run story mode operations with people that aren't usually around that much and to hear everyone's laughter on voice chat.

I haven't had a chance to see all the changes that Bioware has made to the old operations yet, simply because I haven't had a chance yet to run every single op on every single difficulty since 4.0. (In fact, the only nightmare mode I've set foot in has been Dread Fortress to kill Nefra.) But a few things have already been apparent either way.

First off, all the story modes have been subjected to a whole bunch of new nerfs, mostly by making abilities that used to kill people a lot less dangerous or by removing whole mechanics or even phases of a fight altogether. Examples of these include, but are not limited to:

- In EV, the area where the pylon will strike in the last phase of the Soa fight is now highlighted by a glowing blue circle, which has changed the fight from being very difficult to tank (due to the high demands in terms of spatial awareness) to laughably easy.

- In KP, killing the Fabricator droid requires no puzzle solving anymore; any of the consoles can be fired at any time.

- In TFB, Kephess doesn't connect to the pylons anymore during his first phase and just stands there like a dummy. I'm not entirely sure this isn't a bug though.

- In Scum & Villainy, during the Oasis City infiltration, more than one group of people attacking a strike team doesn't trigger the alarm anymore, so you can basically run in as a full group and just steamroll everything together if you like.

- In the Dread Fortress, the way to Gate Commander Draxus isn't barred by a puzzle anymore. Oh, and the exploding droids don't kill people any longer! (R.I.P., most awesome way of killing your guildies.)

- In Temple of Sacrifice, only four people (on 8-man, might be more on 16) need to get the cross mechanic on Underlurker right anymore, the rest can do whatever they like.

I'm not sure that all of these changes were needed or even good ideas, but on the whole I see them as a positive thing. I've always said that story mode should be accessible and easily puggable, and a lot of these changes do help with that, especially by removing mechanics that required the group to be somewhat more co-ordinated that your average pug group usually is. As long as they are still there to challenge us on hardmode, it's fine.

I pugged Temple of Sacrifice as a dps last week and it was an extremely smooth run, an experience that I would have considered unthinkable in this operation pre-4.0. Then again, maybe I just got lucky, as my team did seem to be particularly competent in that case. I also noticed that bolster works really well - when I joined the group I was a little taken aback that one of our group members had only 20k health, considering that a decently geared level 65 character sits on 75k+ at the moment, but once inside the operation they were no weaker than anyone else.

Also, running hardmodes with my guildies has been surprisingly fun so far. I was really worried about how it would feel to wipe on content again that we could easily overpower only a month ago, but so far it hasn't been too bad. For EV, KP and EC in particular it's been so long since they were progression content that they do actually feel pretty fresh again. We've also had some people in our runs who weren't even around when these were "serious" content, and many old-timers had genuinely forgotten a lot of the mechanics.

Karagga HM down with only one man left standing - could be a scene from 2012, but actually it's from two weeks ago.

I'm proud to say that I remembered most of these mechanics. In fact, it was a real joy to do so! Not long ago, Azuriel wrote a post about that sad feeling you get when all that knowledge and skill you acquired while playing a game becomes useless. Doing these old operations again has had pretty much the opposite effect on me: I get to feel important and clever because I still know these things! It sure felt grand to get back into the groove of repeatedly solving the Fabricator puzzle as quickly as possible, or dancing around the Firebrand tank on the ground while dispelling myself. I've got skills, man!

Admittedly I've been less keen on getting back into the 3.0 operations and the ones on Oricon. Somehow those still feel too recent, and I'm still just a little tired of them. But it really helps to have such a huge selection of operations at max-level right now that are all viable ways of gearing up - even if we ran an op every single night of the week, there wouldn't be any repetition and we wouldn't cover everything. That variety really helps to keep things interesting.

So far the fact that we've all been there before hasn't put too much of a dampener on our mood. Ops nights are a strange mix of waxing nostalgic, actually reliving some of the fun, and getting to grips with the way our characters, our group setup and the encounters have changed. I expect that in the long term, there will be annoyances once we run into our first progression wall, but so far it's been surprisingly fun for what's effectively recycled content.

Oh, and of course Bioware managed to (re-)introduce a couple of bugs again, never mind that some of this content has been in the game since lauch. My favourite are what we've come to call "Schrödinger's platforms" in EV, both on the Gharj and on the Soa fight - they only appear for you if you look at the ceiling to watch them fall down, otherwise they remain invisible to you!


The Great Companion Debate

If you've been playing any PvE content in SWTOR since patch 4.0 at all, you must have noticed that your companions have become significantly more powerful than they used to be. To some extent, that was to be expected, since their gear ceased to matter and back when it did, few of us kept our companions' gear up to date at all times, so they were pretty much always weaker than they could have been. Also, we were told in advance that affection/influence was going to affect companion performance in combat come KotFE time - considering that it didn't used to before, that was going to be another buff.

However, what's been going on in practice has been crazy town. Healing companions spam massive heals non-stop, to the point where your health never even moves even while you fight multiple mobs at once. Tank companions can solo seemingly everything, as they shield themselves from damage and have a small, constant self-heal going on. And as far as dps goes, someone on the forums let his max level companion parse on a dummy for five minutes and came out with about 5600 dps. The current top dps player on the worldwide leaderboard sits at 7200, so at least in that area companions have not completely taken over yet... but they are still outperforming the average damage dealer by a considerable margin.

The official forums are on fire with people discussing the issue. One side wants to see companions nerfed, the other enjoys being powerful and wants to hear none of it. Just tuck your companion away if you don't want it, they say, but leave mine alone! (Here's the currently biggest forum thread on the issue that I could find.)

Personally, I am somewhat concerned. I get that people enjoy being powerful, and I don't mind if someone wants to sit back and AFK while their companion does all the work (though personally I'd find it boring). And as someone who plays a lot of healers, I certainly appreciate my dps companions actually packing a bit of a punch now when I'm out questing. What worries me is the effect that overpowered companions are going to have on small group content.

Now, they have always been able to fill the role of an extra player in most heroic missions and flashpoints. They were not as good at the job, but you could manage in a pinch. And that was partially what they were there for! However, in my opinion they should never be preferable to having another player around, and that's exactly what I'm already seeing right now, especially with healers. A guildie of mine was in a flashpoint the other evening, they lost their healer, and when the group finder gave them a replacement he expressed disappointment because they had been doing so well with a companion healer. I've also been in a similar situation myself, when my group of one tank and three dps kept wiping on Colonel Daksh in tactical Maelstrom Prison (even with me kiting him around the boxes like a pro, all old-school hardmode style). When two people quit, me and the remaining dps whipped out our companions instead and things only got easier from there. Did I mention that they even know how to use CC properly now (unlike a lot of players)? It's not hard to imagine players getting kicked from groups in favour of someone's companion healer. This should never happen!

Under the old system, companions were good at dividing small trickle heals among multiple group members, but there was a hard cap on their burst healing, because using their biggest heal would place a debuff on the person who got healed and for several seconds they couldn't be affected by the same big heal again. (This also prevented healer stacking.) I'm not saying we need that exact same system back again, but there does need to be some kind of cap on companion performance in my opionion.

Even if we assume that people won't go to such extremes as kicking people to replace them with companions, new players will simply get a completely warped view of the way the game works. I've always liked how the companion system allowed newbies to get at least a vague idea of how trinity gameplay works and that it made it viable to level as a tank or a healer, even if you played "solo" (that is to say just with your companion) most of the time. However, the kind of output we currently see from companions will just set completely unrealistic expectations for newcomers. The first time they meet a real healer, they'll think: "Wow, they sure suck!" Because unlike their companion, a real healer has resources and cooldowns to consider and can't just spam huge heals non-stop. And why can't that tank just keep himself healed up...?

I hope that Bioware will address this in some manner. I'm willing to give it some time because I know from experience that something that looks like a problem after a big patch may sometimes sort itself out after a while, and not all bad predictions necessarily come to pass. Personally I do suspect though that companions will require at least a little bit of tweaking if they aren't supposed to replace real players in group content in the future.

NOTE: Patch 4.0.2, released on the 17th of November, did indeed nerf companions' damage and healing output. Musco explained their reasoning here.


Housekeeping Woes

One thing that has been bugging me about KotFE is that logging into any alt for the first time since 4.0 feels like a considerable chore. I did sort of allude to having inventory problems in my first impressions post - sadly that hasn't remained a singular occurrence.

I think the biggest problem have been the heaps of companion gear that I received on every character. Players did ask, what with companion gear becoming purely cosmetic, if it would be possible to get back some of those original outfits that each companion comes with. Some of them look pretty good, but obviously a lot of players had discarded them in favour of something with higher stats over time - after all stats were what mattered for the past four years. It's nice of Bioware that they decided to fulfil this player request; I just wish that it had been optional somehow, or something we could deal with on our own time by pressing a button when we were ready.

As it stands, every single one of my characters had her inventory filled with companion gear, whether she wanted any of it or not. (Plus there was that problem with characters taking their trousers off and putting them in my bags for some reason - some even decided to get completely naked; don't ask me why!) So if I wanted my bag space back, I kind of had to prioritise figuring out my companions' outfits or at least whether I was interested in any of their old gear before doing anything else. I actually enjoy that kind of busywork sometimes, but not when it's forced on me while all I want to do is go do the new missions! It wasn't even done properly either, as I got some rather... odd mails in some cases, with gear for companions that I didn't even have as well as duplicates of other pieces.

It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things and in a few weeks I'm sure we'll all have forgotten about it, but at the moment it's really rather annoying. Two weeks in and I still haven't sorted all my alts out. It's not hard for me to imagine a returning player taking one look at the mess in their bags and mailbox and going "screw this nonsense" before logging right off again.

Oh, and did I mention that all my characters who are crafters had to spend several hundred thousand credits on training a whole new set of level 1-65 schematics?

At least our specialisations didn't get reset for once - just the utility points, and those aren't too tough to re-assign quickly.