28/02/2012

My journey to 50 in review, part 3

It's been a while, but I did not forget!

Part 1
Part 2

Hoth

Hoth is another really iconic Star Wars planet and invoked similar feelings in me as Tatooine. I loved the wide open spaces, even if it took ages to get from one place to the next. I was just a bit surprised by the amount of wildlife we met in the snow, as it almost seemed like a bit much considering the extremely hostile environment. Still, at least it gave my boyfriend and me excuses to take turns squeeing at the sight of familiar creatures. "It's a tauntaun!" "It's a wampa!" "It's a blue dude!" (That's what I called the Ortolans, they were adorable.)

I also really liked the quest where you get to cooperate with the Imperials for a brief period of time to defeat some pirates, and I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like from the other side. Finally, we picked up our last companion on this planet.

Act 2/3 Transition

The trooper class quest at the end of Act 2 is another exercise in boarding an enemy ship, but you actually get to take your entire squad with you this time, sort of. I was honestly pretty awed when they all charged in guns blazing at the start, though you're then forced to split up for gameplay reasons. It does make you wonder whether there's some potential extra gameplay to be had from being able to control multiple companions on special occasions.

Act 3 opens with two class missions in space in a row, and the second one was quite remarkable in that it confronted me with what was probably the hardest decision I had to make during the entire game. It's probably the most talked about trooper quest on the forums, and for good reason. You get to decide about whether people live or die throughout the game all the time, but this quest truly made it difficult, and even though I thought that I had made the right decision in the end, I still felt genuinely bad about the negative side effects. Kudos to Bioware for successfully tugging at people's heartstrings there.

Belsavis

I thought that this was another visually interesting planet, what with the contrast between snow and jungle. Surely I can't be the only one who thought what a complete waste it was to turn a planet like that into a prison of all things? I mean, potential swimming pools and opportunities to ski right next to each other? What else could it be but the perfect holiday resort!

I liked the quests on here alright, though I was a bit disappointed that they didn't do more with the prison theme. Considering how many powerful enemies I had captured over the course of my levelling until then, it would have been nice to meet one or two of them again, but I guess that would have become too complicated in terms of tracking of storyline threads. Still, a bit of a wasted opportunity.

This was also the first time I felt that either the quests were becoming a bit predictable, or I was simply becoming too good at reading the minds of Bioware's writers - what else was going to happen after that guy made a point of emphasising three times just how upset he would be if anything bad happened to his little lady helper...?

I do kind of wish they hadn't picked this place to make us come back for dailies over and over again though. I'm getting tired of the loading screen with the ugly monster on it by now.

Voss

My first impression of Voss was: it's Azshara! Visually it has a lot in common with the classic zone from World of Warcraft, what with the serene landscape perpetually basked in autumn colours, but the lore behind the area soon turned out to be quite different.

I'm guessing that this planet must be a lot more fun if you're a force user of some kind, as the Voss are heavily steeped in mysticism and a lot of their quests feel just plain weird when you do them as someone who's supposed to be just an average Joe in terms of psychic ability. However, this also highlighted for me why I really love the conversation system even when the dialogue we pick doesn't make a difference to the outcome - I simply felt a lot better for being able to respond with confusion and disdain to everything the Voss asked of me, even if I did end up doing it in the end.

Weirdness aside, I did quite enjoy the quests on this planet. It's also the first place where I noticed that the game does actually have at least some phasing in the open world as well, when a little cliff that had been abandoned earlier became inhabited by friendly NPCs after I completed most of the missions in the area.

Corellia

It didn't take us long to hit max level by the time we arrived on Corellia, and in fact I still haven't finished the planet, so it's hard to fully judge it at this point. However, one thing I do think it's safe to say is that this might've been my favourite city planet so far - not a favourite overall, but at least I can see the sky and there's a bit more variation in the environment. The tram also makes for a very different mode of transportation, and every time I ride it I feel a bit like I'm on a rollercoaster. The only thing that bugged me a little is that it felt to me as if Bioware tried a bit too hard to portray the Corellians as an entire population of Han Solos, which feels a tad strange to be honest.

In summary, while the journey to 50 is very linear in terms of questing, I still felt that the available content overall was varied enough to allow me to choose between different options. I did all the normal mode flashpoints up to Red Reaper at least once while levelling, and skipped two and a half planet stories, not to mention all the bonus series except Tatooine's. There is plenty left for me to explore at max level as I haven't even touched Ilum yet, and my alts will also have plenty of opportunities to try out content that I haven't seen yet.

24/02/2012

Sixth Screenshot Meme

Most appropriately, I typoed the title of this post as Sith Screenshot Meme at first.

Anyway, the sixth screenshot meme is still going around and spreading across different gaming blogs - I already did it for WoW, but now I got tagged by Liore and Njessi to do it on here as well!

Unlike my WoW folder, the one for SWTOR screenshots is still pretty small simply because I've only been playing the game for two months, so I'll actually stick to just posting the sixth screenshot in there. It's this one:

... and it shows me interacting with some guildies for the first time in a run of Hammer Station.

Usually I'm not one to tag other people to do this kind of thing, but I'll at least try to pass it on to a few this time. How about:

Telwyn from GamingSF (when he (she?) comes back from AFKness)
Maldwiz from Shades of Grey (to coax another post out of him)
DraconianOne from Get the girl, Kill the baddies

Three is half of six, that's got to count for something, right?

23/02/2012

My first operation!

Today I got to participate in my first operation in The Old Republic. Even though I initially had my reservations about whether I wanted to raid at all, I was completely stoked about getting to join the action tonight. Previously the days and times set aside for organised guild activities always happened to be times that I couldn't make, and the more often I found myself unable to raid the more I wanted to. Funny how "playing hard to get" works even for computer games.

I was really grateful when the guild leader finally picked a date and time that I could make (probably not purely for my benefit, but I still appreciated it) and became quite excited as the evening approached. Me? Excited to raid? You'd think that after four years of doing it every week it would be impossible for me to get this excited about this kind of thing, even if it happened to take place in a different game. Raiding is raiding, right?

Even funnier, I actually began to feel a little nervous as the starting time drew closer, inspecting the remaining blue mods in my custom gear with a critical eye and mentally chiding myself for not having tried harder to upgrade them before. And our Sage healer had already done, what, four raids at least? Sooo much more experience than me, and my AoE heals suck, and oh god, I hope I won't be dragging us down... it was completely ridiculous! Fortunately I needn't have worried.

I thought that the intro to the Eternity Vault was one of the coolest starts to a raid I've ever seen, and I was kind of surprised to find out that it was located on Belsavis, as I hadn't actually looked into the details of the whole thing before. I made sure to make it over to the spot on the snow where others were already assembling, worried that I was late and holding people back, but fortunately about half the raid only arrived shortly afterwards, with our raid leader showing people the way (as I wasn't the only one for whom it was the first time). Incidentally, despite of the newness of the content the whole experience had a certain sense of homecoming to it for me, as said raid leader also used to be the leader of my WoW guild when I first joined nearly five years ago. Listening to him explain fights again was just like old times!

I didn't really get what the "trash" leading up to the first boss was all about, as I assumed that the turrets were being tanked but I still got shot a lot and was then told to move, which sounded like I was being targeted due to proximity? I'll probably look it up at some point, but right now I'm too lazy.

The first boss was a very straightforward fight with a little "run from the marks on the ground" phase and a brief "everyone hide behind the pillar" phase, which we one-shot easily. It really made me wonder how I could have so much fun with something so simple, obvious factors like newness and good company aside, and after brief contemplation I came to the conclusion that it was due to my character's limitations. If I had to heal the same encounter with my priest from WoW, it would be a total snoozefest simply because after three expansions of power creep I would only have to hit three spells that are just right for the fight and the raid would almost heal itself. Compare that to my combat medic who has a grand total of six healing spells, three of them have a cooldown, and only one of them is a (very piddly) AoE, and suddenly even simple mechanics such as keeping people alive while on the move or multiple characters taking damage at once become surprisingly engaging again.

I won a glove token from this boss, and thought that the way the loot system basically rolls for you automatically is pretty interesting. This seems very pug friendly to me as it makes it impossible to argue or ninja, however I can see it becoming annoying once you get to a point where people might not need every drop anymore, if the system keeps assigning them loot over someone who could actually use the item. I assume this will still receive some fine-tuning.

After this boss there was some trash to kill, which wasn't really particularly challenging or interesting in any way. I suppose that's a fair approach to trash (after all, people tend to complain if it's too hard compared to the boss or takes up too much time), but I do think they could have made these packs a little more interesting. Our raid leader actually described some of the mobs as "nothing but massive bags of hitpoints". Fortunately people were chatty and it felt like we were killing things reasonably quickly.

"How do you kick a droid in the nuts anyway?"
"Well, droids have a lot of nuts and bolts."
"..."
"That was terrible!"

I really liked the scenery too. Even with only eight people in the operation, everything felt massive and epic. Sometimes size does matter. It's telling that they give you a speeder ride for the run back after a wipe, and it still takes ages to make it back to the final boss.

I also liked the varied environments. It felt slightly weird to go from frozen technology to a lava-filled cave to a lush bit of jungle to what looked like a laboratory, but the planet's lore does support these kinds of zone shifts so it's all good.

The second boss felt slightly harder than the first one, though not by much. We wiped once, mostly because people seemed to get a bit distracted by the adds and forgot to move off the dissolving platform in time. On our second try we either got extremely lucky with the RNG or the boss bugged a little, because it took him ages to move, which gave our raid a lot more time than usual to go all out at dpsing him.

The next encounter wasn't a boss per se, but a little event that involved fiddling with some pylons while waves of adds attacked. I was tasked with handling one of the pylons at the start and was a bit scared when I first looked at it, but in the end it turned out that all I had to do was focus on a console on the ground and click it over and over again every time it lit up, which eventually led to the "puzzle" solving itself. It did feel a bit weird to just use that console a few times, throw a couple of heals around and then be done already. Our scoundrel, who was managing the other pylon, managed to "break" it so that when the encounter completed the symbols on his side still weren't lined up correctly. We joked that he had just sliced it and cheated, typical smuggler.

The fourth "boss" was again not an actual boss but an encounter, and a rather strange one at that. Everyone just got to pick one of eight mobs and had to kill it on their own, without interfering with anyone else's mobs in any way. Think Leotheras the Blind in SSC back in the day, only without an actual boss encounter, just that mechanic. Unlike Liore's guild, we gave the two mobs with the lowest hitpoints to the healers, and I think I'd struggle to kill anything with more health in time. Not that my mob ever really threatened me, healer dps is just incredibly slow. Since we had three tanks (as that was who had signed up, sometimes you have to work with what you've got), one of them had to take a mob intended for a damage dealer, but as it turned out our Shadow tank did insane dps anyway.

In some ways this encounter was weird and didn't really feel like a boss fight, but in other ways I liked it. People complain about not being able to measure their dps without damage metres... go do this encounter and see how you do. If the mobs reset because you're too slow, you need to work on your performance, if not - peachy. It was pretty interesting to see who killed their mobs first, and that our Shadow tank actually finished before our newest and somewhat undergeared dpser. It kind of makes you competitive. And what better motivation to work on your dps than everyone who already finished standing there and cheering you on (to please, please finish in time)?

We actually had to retry the encounter several times, even though our damage was more than sufficient. Only the first time did we truly fail because there wasn't enough dps, but that was because we had put one of our Guardian tanks on a dps mob, and he ran out of time with the mob having a sliver of health left. At least there's no dying when you "wipe" here, it just resets. After that we put the Shadow on damage duty, but we ran into a problem as someone had got the debuff you get for helping someone else and now couldn't damage his own mob either. Another time our dps Commando disconnected briefly mid-fight and again that was just enough to mess things up. We got there in the end though.

The last boss was the only one we didn't beat, as he felt like a significant step up from the previous four encounters, but that's fine by me. The last boss should feel more epic than the rest, and this way people still get to gear up from the first four encounters while working on him. He's still not too bad really, but there is a lot more going on, people get many chances to fall to their deaths, and timing matters. On our best attempt for example the raid pushed him to the point where he destroys the second platform just as he was whirling me through the air, so I got deposited on empty air afterwards and went splat. Oops.

I was quite impressed with the overall design of this encounter though, as I think it manages to inspire awe by utilising all three dimensions without being an annoying 3D movement fight (in my opinion anyway). I don't recommend looking down a lot though if you have vertigo - I don't and it still made me a bit dizzy at times as we jumped down across the floating platforms.

I'm definitely looking forward to my next visit to the Vault. What are other people's experiences with SWTOR operations so far?

21/02/2012

Early Impressions of the Belsavis Dailies

I can't actually remember how I truly felt about dailies when they were first introduced in WoW. I think I didn't mind them, but I never did them religiously either. I vaguely remember having fun with the repeatable Ogri'la quests, and that they were a good way of accumulating cash for the epic flying skill at the time. However, with each new expansion the incentives to do dailies increased, and so did the pressure to do them or be left behind in terms of gear and achievements. By the time I had finished Cataclysm's Molten Front, I never wanted to do another daily quest ever again.

Keeping this background in mind, I was less than enthused to hear that SWTOR's endgame would include dailies as well. However, one evening I decided to putter off to Belsavis anyway, just to see what all the hubbub was about. I wasn't even sure whether I'd be able to do anything, as I had heard that you needed to finish your class quest first to unlock the dailies, and I still haven't done that. I found no clues about where I was supposed to go, but after simply exploring the regions of the map that were still unknown to me, I eventually ran into a Republic base where I was offered a quest to kill some Rattataki and one to steal some relics from the local Sith. I figured that they might be a lead-in to the dailies and got to work, if very slowly, as questing as a healer is still slower than as a damage dealer, even with companion assistance.

Once I had handed them in I was surprised to see a greyed out quest symbol appear over the NPC's head, indicating that I'd be able to repeat the experience tomorrow. But... they hadn't been marked as dailies! I continued on to a new quest which had just been unlocked, to collect venom glands from the local wildlife.

As I climbed a little hill, I suddenly saw someone zoom past below me. My guild leader! I greeted him happily and he asked me whether I was there to do dailies too. "I don't know," I said, "they don't say that they are dailies, but it looks like they might be." Next thing I knew I was grouped with him and another guildie, frantically clinging to his Jedi coattails as the two of them dragged me along for a wild daily ride. I barely had time to take everything in, but it was good fun.

The quests appeared to be arranged in a very linear fashion, with each completion unlocking one or two follow-ups. At one point we ran into a hitch as I suddenly couldn't pick up the last couple of quests anymore. Turns out that in the second base, there's an unrelated non-daily quest which you have to do once before the other ones unlock (the one to cure or kill the Gen'Dai). With my luck, I didn't realise this until the others had already completed everything else for the day.

Fortunately for me, I saw someone LFM for the heroic quests that I was still missing mere minutes later. Turns out that this group had another guildie of mine in it, a guy who has the uncanny ability to always show up in pugs when you least expect it. We had a very sub-optimal group setup with two healers, a melee dps and a companion tank, and we died several times in the heroic area but in the end we got the job done, not to mention that we managed to have a good laugh about it all. We also learned that letting one party member go AFK in the middle of where you just killed a group of elite mobs is not a good idea. And that's how I ended my first day of Belsavis dailies.

The next day, I saw someone forming a group for them in guild chat pretty much as soon as I logged on and I immediately joined in again. This time we had three healers and a damage dealer, but one of said healers was a guy who had been among the first in our guild to hit level 50, so he had been going through the motions for quite a while already and knew the drill. Now the speed at which this group went through the dailies made the previous "wild ride" look positively mellow. I was actually surprised when people wanted to pause to do the group conversations instead of simply having one person pick up the quest and then share it, but apparently everyone wanted social points. However, I was immediately chided (in a friendly way) for not hitting my space bar and thus holding everyone else up. But, but... I never use my space bar unless it's to skip the cut scene at the beginning of the Voidstar!

Still, I went ahead with it as I didn't want to annoy anyone, and fortunately my guildies' silly banter on Mumble more than made up for any missed NPC chat (not to mention that I had seen it all the day before). It also made me reflect on the fact that nearly all of the daily quest givers for the Republic are aliens that don't speak Basic. I wonder if that's intentional because it feels less weird to interrupt alien gibberish than someone actually trying to talk? Probably not, but it helps.

Either way, the heroic 4 area was quite fun with this group, because the perfect coordination of our crowd control was beautiful to behold. However, it also seems that no matter how good a group you have, nobody wants to actually kill the mobs in front of The Stasis Generator, and people would rather sacrifice themselves a few times instead to quickly push the buttons without killing anything. I don't quite get it, but who am I to complain about other people liking to attempt crazy stunts?

Anyway, after all this rambling, what is my early verdict of these dailies in SWTOR?

The main thing that struck me was that they didn't really feel like they were designed to be dailies. You can easily write a quest in such a way that it makes sense to repeat it, but for most of these it made no sense at all. I haven't been to Ilum yet, but one of my guildies joked about how a pilot there keeps crashing on the same spot every day apparently. The voiced conversations definitely don't benefit from daily repetition either, encouraging liberal space bar abuse. Again I find this strange, because SWTOR does have some written quests which you can just pick up at a mission terminal - wouldn't it make sense for dailies to work that way too? It almost feels as if these quests were never intended to be dailies, until someone decided late in development that omg, they needed daily quests somewhere, so they just took the last chain on Belsavis, made it repeatable and added some special rewards on the way.

This doesn't really feel like good design to me, and maybe it will turn out to be annoying in the long term, but in the short run I have to say that it actually kind of works for me regardless, because it means that the dailies don't feel like dailies (and thus annoying). Instead they lend themselves to treating them like a flashpoint, with no pressure to actually do them every day just because you can do all the solo stuff on your own. Instead you just assemble a group whenever you feel like it and time allows it (because there are those heroic quests at the end, which are the ones that give the best rewards) and then go nuts. I think I can live with that.

Though to be fair, ask me again in a couple of months. I might have changed my mind by then.

18/02/2012

Just another day in the warzone

I was a bit wary of stepping into warzones at max level, since I was highly aware of the fact that there would be no more bolstering, gear suddenly mattered, and I would start out at the very bottom of the totem pole. However, I'm very glad that I dared to give it a go eventually, because it's been oodles of fun.

Yes, I did feel very powerless at the start. The combat medic's lack of mobility still annoys me sometimes. In a frantic PvP battle, the ability lag that so many forum posters are complaining about and that I never really noticed in PvE is apparent even to me, though I'm not sure whether "ability lag" is even the right term for it. It just feels like animations and gameplay are a bit out of sync in some cases, so a cast might not actually go off even though it looked like it, or you might find yourself stunned or rooted with no real visible indicator of what's going on (this one happens to me a lot).

And of course, at the worst of times, you might find yourself sitting in the warzone queue for a long time, just to be thrown into a match where your team is several members short (one of the "perks" of playing the less popular faction) and you end up getting farmed near the spawn point while the enemy semi-premade owns you at Huttball. Been there, done that.

However, I do love the overall feel of warzones. I'm generally not a fan of playing melee classes, but I love to watch other people's Jedi whirl through the air and slash the enemy with their lightsabers. I love how each warzone has all these ramps, tunnels, nooks and crannies that reward strategic positioning, and I'm still learning new tricks every day.

I love the goodie bags that I get from the daily quests. I've been told that gearing up for PvP is grindy and annoying, but seeing how I'm not really that focused on it, every quest reward simply feels like a welcome bonus. Getting at least a couple of pieces with expertise on them isn't that expensive either, and every little helps.

But most of all, I love the feeling of community that I see developing in the warzones. TOR PvPers are certainly no angels, and I have seen the occasional moan about how this or that enemy class is overpowered or how people aren't paying enough attention to the objectives. However, for each of these negative comments I've seen about ten useful or simply positive ones. People greet each other and talk strategy. Incomings are called out and reacted to. Enemy healers are identified and marked up by the ops leader for easier targeting. Congratulations and cheers abound when things go well. And this is all in pugs!

In the last couple of days alone I've had some particularly awesome games. There was the Voidstar where our ops leader immediately complained about the system making him leader again, and then led us to an amazing victory against what was a pretty strong enemy team. There was the Huttball game where we were 0-2 down within the first couple of minutes but then ended up turning things around and into a 5-2 victory. Or the Civil War game where I guarded the left turret on my own for the entirety of the game, but every time I needed help and called out, the same trooper came running over to rescue me and then thanked me for doing such a good job defending. I could go on and on.

I have to admit that I was a bit dismayed when I read in last week's Q&A what sounded to me like a hint that Bioware intends to introduce cross-server queuing for warzones in the future, even if they were kind of vague about it. Since PvP isn't the main focus of the game for me, I certainly wouldn't rage-quit over it or anything, but the notion does make me a little sad. I reckon that now is probably the best time to get into SWTOR PvP, balance issues and all - because I don't know how long this enthusiasm and community spirit will last.

16/02/2012

One thing that bugs me about heroic quests

I've mentioned repeatedly that I love love love The Old Republic's group content. However, I've discovered that I have one small gripe with the heroic quests out in the open world. (Gasp!) Namely, I wish that Bioware hadn't put any of them at the very end of a planet's story progression.

You see, when I just got started on a planet and I run into a group quest... I'll give a quick shout-out about it in general chat, but if nobody responds at the time, it's not that big of a deal. I'll just continue on my merry little way and keep an eye on chat for when someone else inevitably ends up looking for a group for it. It's no real problem to hop on the nearest taxi and backtrack a bit. Basically, I have a pretty big time frame to find a group between when I first get the quest and when I'm done with the planet.

However, the further I've progressed along the planet's main storyline by the time a heroic quest first shows up, the smaller the window of opportunity for group-finding before I leave the planet again. The issue is exacerbated by some people presumably leaving without actually completing all the quests, meaning that the pool of players even looking at the early heroics is bigger than the number of those picking up the later ones.

In practice this means that I haven't had any trouble getting groups on the alts that I'm levelling solo - except for when a heroic 4 quest is thrown at me more or less at the same time as the very last storyline quest on the planet. I end up doing a quick "LFM" in chat, if nobody responds I just do the single-player quest - and then I'm done with the whole planet. Even if someone contacted me via LFG later, there is little appeal in going back just for that one green heroic quest. And I think that's a shame, because I really would have liked to help that lady retrieve her invaluable records from the heroic area!

Of course, one way to sort of circumvent this problem is to respond to any shout-outs for heroic quests in chat, even if you don't actually have the heroic in question yet. Bioware was clever in that regard and made sure that all the heroic stories are stand-alones that can be shared, so it's technically not an issue to jump ahead a bit for a group quest.

However, this system still has multiple downsides:

1) You miss out on the dialogue with the NPC, as quest sharing just gives you a brief written summary of what you're supposed to do. This is not a big deal if you're on an alt who has done the quest before, but if it's your first time the thought of missing out on the context is kind of unappealing. The conversations are after all one of the game's main selling points.

2) While it's technically not a problem to jump ahead for a quest that you haven't picked up yet, geography can kind of get in the way, if the quest is on the other end of the planet and you haven't discovered any of the taxi routes yet.

3) To a new player, agreeing to join for a quest they don't actually have yet is simply completely counter-intuitive. Putting "quest can be shared" into your LFM request helps a little, but not much.

Fortunately I haven't had this problem too often yet... but still often enough for it to be noticeable.

13/02/2012

Companion Personality vs. Utility

When playing with other people, we're probably all familiar with the issue of personality vs. skill. I'm pretty sure that we've all known someone who was great fun to have around on a personal level, but who sometimes drove you up the wall because they just couldn't grasp the concept of not standing in the fire. On the other end of the spectrum, we've all probably met more than one person who appeared to be really good at what they were doing, but if they ever opened their mouth you immediately regretted grouping with them because they were just that obnoxious. And of course there's all kinds of degrees between those two extremes.

By making companions in SWTOR almost as powerful as real players and infusing them with believable personalities, Bioware has managed to introduce this conflict into the player-NPC relationship as well. Skill isn't really an issue since it's probably safe to assume that all companions operate using the same basic AI, but instead there is the issue of utility, since each companion can only fulfill one role, and you can't tell them to respec. So you might suddenly find yourself struggling to choose between a companion who is fun to have around in conversations but has no synergy with you in combat, or one who gets on your nerves whenever they open their mouth but complements your skills perfectly. It's an interesting conundrum. (And yes, I know you can solve this problem by switching every time you do something different, but that can be a load of hassle as well.)

I haven't really had any major problems with this on my trooper, maybe because I rarely felt that dependent on my companion to begin with, considering that I'm pretty much always playing in a group. However, on my alts things have been trickier.

My Jedi consular for example is a heavily light-side oriented character who tries to follow the Jedi code at all times. Her first companion is Qyzen Fess, a Trandoshan hunter. The game makes it clear from the start that your friendship is slightly unusual, and it shows. While it helps that Qyzen places a high value on honour, he's not a fan of taking prisoners or constantly helping out people who can't take care of their own problems, which obviously creates conflict. I didn't dislike him, but I was still looking forward to hopefully getting another companion with whom I'd get along better.

Then I did get my second companion, and he turned out to be a healer. A healer with a healer companion? I did it for one quest, and it was just awkward. Come back, Qyzen!

The other night my consular quested her way through Tatooine, and some run-ins with a couple of nasty Gamorreans really made me rethink my relationship with my pocket tank. In particular there was one quest where I accidentally let Qyzen die (oops) but figured that I should still be able to finish off the already heavily injured Gamorrean - nope, the bastard ended up kicking me every time I tried to heal myself and I died! The shame.

After that I took another long, hard look at Qyzen and realised: He's letting some Gamorreans kick him in the nuts while I stand in the back and throw rocks at them, and yet he never complains. He taunts things off me without needing any prompting, and his "sayings" during combat are all in a language I don't understand, so they never get old - they just provide a sort of comforting background grumble. I think... the old lizard-man might be growing on me after all! His performance in combat softened my attitude towards him and made me forget our personal disagreements.

In contrast to this, we have my Imperial Agent and her companion Kaliyo. I knew that she was going to be bad news from the moment she joined me. Yes, she does make me laugh sometimes and she tanks like a boss, but one of my agent's defining characteristics is that she's a patriot, and one of Kaliyo's defining characteristics is that she hates patriots. Whenever she frowns at me for saying "for the Empire", I want to kick her in the shins. Oh, and did I mention that Imperial Agents don't get a second companion until the end of Alderaan? /twitch.

When I finally did get my second companion, I was at first relieved... until I realised that he was a melee dpser like me, and I kept dying on every other pull. Not the best synergy. However, I haven't given up yet, as I'm sure that there's a way to make it work. I'm even considering respeccing to healer just for that purpose. Am I crazy? At first I thought so, but then I heard in a recent episode of Mos Eisley Radio how one of the hosts had respecced his Jedi Knight to tank purely to give his questing with Kira better synergy.

What's your attitude towards companion personality vs. utility? Are you putting up with an annoying companion just because they get the job done? Do you prefer to take out the ones you like even if it's less than optimal? Or do you actually swap companions every time you have a conversation or are about to get into a fight, trying to min-max the benefit you get out of your companion's company at every corner?

10/02/2012

How to use SWTOR's LFG system and /who

Since a lot of people still seem to be finding this post via Google search terms, I have to point out that the information it gives about SWTOR's LFG system is now somewhat outdated. The instructions for how to operate /who still apply, but since patch 1.3 the game's main way to find groups for flashpoints and other group content is the group finder.

You know, I told myself that from now on, I was going to stay out of this whole debate about whether SWTOR needs a dungeon finder or something similar. But it really annoys me when I keep seeing people make arguments that are flat out not true. Specifically, two claims that I've heard brought up both on forums and in podcasts recently (by people who you'd think should really know better) are that

1) SWTOR doesn't have any kind of LFG functionality at all, and
2) that this functionality (which apparently doesn't exist in the first place) only works in whatever zone you're currently in.

I'm all for making improvements to the LFG system, but let's get our facts about how it works right now straight at least, right? So, without further ado: a brief guide on how to use the current system.

First off, open your social window (O) and click on the "who" tab. On the bottom of this tab, on the left side, you'll see a ticky box to indicate that you are looking for a group. Selecting this won't put you into any kind of queue or auto-grouping system, but it does add an indicator to your name that makes it easier for other people to see that you are looking for a group.

On the bottom right of the same tab, you'll see an option to update your LFG comment, which opens a new window if you click on it. If you've flagged yourself as looking for a group, it will be set to simply say "LFG" by default. It's more helpful however if you add which content you're looking to group up for and what role(s) you can play.

Now, at the top of the tab you'll see a text field called "search terms", which will by default show your current location. Underneath you'll see a list of people who fit this search term, that is to say who are currently in the same zone as you (up to a certain maximum). People who have flagged themselves as LFG will be on top of the list and have a little purple icon next to their name. The column called "LFG comment" might cut off a good chunk of a person's actual comment, but you can see the whole thing by hovering over the purple icon next to their name.

If you want to see everyone on the server who is online on your faction and has flagged themselves as looking for group, simply replace the current search term with "LFG". No, it's not limited to the zone you are in at all.

Now, since few people actually use this system (probably in part because everyone keeps saying that it doesn't exist), you might not find what you're looking for among the people on this list. Fear not, however: many people are actually quite open to grouping up even if they haven't explicitly said so. You have nothing to lose by asking.

Fortunately you can use the search field to find all kinds of people. For example, let's assume that you're at the fleet and want to form a group to do Hammer Station. This flashpoint is designed for players of level 16 and up. Where would people of that level usually quest? Just use "Taris" as your search term, and you'll see a list of a whole bunch of potential group mates. If you don't know which zone matches the level range you're looking for, you can simply enter the level range itself, e.g. "16-19". If you're just looking to fill a specific role, you can also filter by (advanced) class, for example "Jedi Sage 16-19" to see people who might be able to heal. Send out some whispers and with any luck you'll soon be ready to go!

None of this is new stuff really; I know that WoW's /who command at least has worked this way since vanilla, but maybe people never familiarised themselves with that either.

08/02/2012

My journey to 50 in review, part 2

Part 1

Tatooine

Tatooine was the first planet that really blew me away. It helps that it's one of the iconic Star Wars worlds and that they managed to really make it look like in the films, but I also appreciated the greater freedom it provided. For the first time the terrain didn't make me feel like I was just being funnelled from one place to the next, and I was truly free to go wherever I wanted. It felt kind of liberating to just cruise across the dunes at random, though I definitely wouldn't want to be stuck on Tatooine without a speeder.

This was also the place where my guild killed its first heroic world boss, Trapjaw. It was nice to have a reason for people of varying level ranges to come together, and I ended up winning an epic chest piece. Though I have since replaced it, I've kept it in my bank as a reminder of that very first "raid" with the guild.

From a healer's point of view, I also found the Trapjaw fight interesting because it made me curious what SWTOR's endgame raiding might have in store for me. The boss is pretty much a tank and spank fight with a bit of AoE damage every so often, but as it turns out even something as simple as, oh, not having any strong AoE heals, can be enough to make even that an exciting challenge.

After we had completed the main storyline, we headed back to the spaceport and ran into the quest giver that starts the Tatooine bonus series. We were enjoying the planet, so we thought: sure, why not! However, it ended up being the only bonus series we did. I'm glad that they exist, to give people more options in regards to how they want to level, but we were already outlevelling things as it was, and completing an entire bonus series only made things worse. Not to mention that helping farmers kill ten dozen sand people felt like a bit of a let-down after the epicness of the planet's main storyline.

Alderaan

Due to the experience boost from the Tatooine bonus series, we had once again pretty much outlevelled Alderaan before we even got there. The quests and mobs hadn't turned grey just yet, they were still green, but we still decided to limit ourselves to our class quest only and then jump straight ahead to the next planet.

This was a bit of a shame, because visually Alderaan was another stunning planet. I loved the green meadows and the backdrop of blue skies and snowy mountains. In some areas you could almost forget that there was a civil war going on, and the lush scenery seemed like the kind of place where you'd want to go on an afternoon hike or a camping trip. I'm looking forward to exploring the story behind it all on an alt.

As far as the trooper story went, I rather enjoyed the chapter on Alderaan and how it focused more heavily on politics than blowing shit up, and the "rescue mission" quest was fairly amusing. I just wish that I could have adopted the House Organa prison guard as a companion, as he seemed like a very nice chap. (Why yes, "being a nice chap" is a perfectly fine criterion for deciding whether someone should join the Republic military or not.)

End of Act I

After this I got to storm an enemy spaceship as the end of my class story's Act I. It felt like a worthy ending to the story to me, though my experience was somewhat spoiled by the extreme bugginess of the whole thing at the time.

The transition between acts strikes me as interesting because you basically get told something along the lines of "well done, enjoy a bit of a break on the space station", and then immediately get sent back to your superior to start Act II. I've seen people complain about this pointless back and forth, but personally I'm willing to forgive it because it strikes me as an indicator that Bioware is really committed to treating the class stories as an ongoing thing and has been developing them that way from the start. If future acts are released one by one, it makes sense to be told to take a break while you wait for the next chapter to be released; it's just that the first three acts were all bundled up and included with the base game at once.

Balmorra

Act II started off with the promise of two more companions, the first of which we'd pick up on Balmorra. Somehow, even though we had just skipped Alderaan, we were already on the higher end of the level range for Balmorra as well. Must've been all those flashpoints. Again, we decided to just do our class quest... but then ended up accidentally sabotaging our own intentions.

As we left the space dock above Balmorra, my boyfriend pointed out that we might as well pick up the quest there, because it was "just a breadcrumb quest" to go to the surface. Big. Mistake. There are no such things as breadcrumb quests in the Old Republic. Or rather, maybe there are, but with the way accepting and completing quests works, you can't just complete one and then not accept the follow-up, one automatically flows into the other. So, as we talked to the guy on the surface, he immediately sent us off on another quest, after we completed that there was immediately another one, and so on and so forth. It wasn't possible to abandon the chain either, so our only choices were to complete it to the bitter end or to let it "clog up" our log pointlessly. In the end, we ended up doing both our class quest and the planet's main storyline, only skipping the side quests.

The Balmorrean trooper story ended up being pretty annoying to be honest, as least from our point of view. You basically get sent on a wild goose chase to find this guy, and every time you get to where you were sent, he's already gone but the local guys won't let you continue on your way until you've helped them out first. It was a small comfort that Bioware seemed to be aware of how annoying this would be and at one point has your active companion initiate a conversation just to complain about it.

Of course it didn't help that neither me nor my SO were particularly keen on getting this particular new companion. A trooper's first three squad members are all pretty similar in general attitude, very pro-Republic and all about following the rules. This suited us just fine because of the types of characters we played, though I feel bad for anyone wanting to play a sassy and ruthless trooper - they're pretty much bound to receive nothing but companion disapproval until at least level 35 or so! Anyway, the companion you pick up on Balmorra is the first and only real "rebel" in your squad, and we didn't really care for that.

In summary, Balmorra was a kind of frustrating experience due to circumstances more than anything else: getting ourselves "locked" into doing the planet's main storyline even though we hadn't meant to, and having to deal with a companion that we personally thought was kind of annoying. I'm looking forward to giving the planet another try on an alt, hopefully without the associated emotional baggage.

Quesh

I don't have much to say about Quesh, other than that I'd love to hear Bioware's reasoning for why they made this planet the way it is. There's nothing wrong with it, it's a nice little planet, but why is it so small? I don't understand why they made every planet cover about five levels or so, and then they made this one world that has a comparatively small amount of content and only covers two. It's just random.

And that's it for part 2. Part 3 will cover everything else up to me reaching the level cap.

Part 3

07/02/2012

To raid or not to raid

(Yes, I know they are called "operations" in SWTOR, but I refuse to talk about "operating" as a verb, and "running operations" feels unnecessarily clunky. "Raiding" it is.)

My guild had its first official raid the other night, our occasional killing of heroic world bosses while levelling up not included. I wasn't attending because I had... prior social commitments, but the fact that raids are already happening in the guild really made me thoughtful. The thing is, I'm not entirely sure I actually do want to raid in this game, at least at this point in time.

I didn't start raiding in WoW until I had already been playing the game for nine months or so. When I first started to play I had no idea about the game mechanics of an MMO, not to talk about any kind of understanding of concepts like endgame, so raiding simply wasn't a concern for me. There were plenty of other things to do.

However, when I did finally get into raiding, it did feel pretty natural at the time. I was playing with friends, and there were more people in the guild that I didn't know that well and that I wanted to get to know better. What better way to be social with a large number of people than to actually participate in activities that are designed for a large number of people?

I raided for four years, and I got a lot of enjoyment out of it. But when it ended, it wasn't pretty.

Not again!

One of the main reasons I'm weary of getting into raiding in SWTOR is simply that I feel burnt by WoW's raid game. Blizzard made something that I enjoyed, and then they changed it and changed it and changed it some more, until it had become something that I didn't enjoy anymore. Now Bioware has made a great game, and I actually feel grateful because they managed to bring back so many things that I enjoyed in the past and that WoW did away with... but only time will tell whether they are willing to stick to their guns or whether they will also fall into the trap of constantly changing things for the sake of change.

I'm actually pretty optimistic that their solo and small group content content will remain good, but in terms of raiding I'm a little sceptical, largely because they already copied some of the more recent features of WoW's raid model that I didn't particularly like, such as each raid coming in two sizes, or the normal / hard mode split. This makes me very worried that they'll try to copy current-day WoW too much in this instance, which would eventually end up making the content unappealing to me.

Let me in!

However, when my inner pessimist is done talking, I look at what's out there and right now, the idea of raiding in SWTOR seems just plain fun. Hutts with top hats piloting giant droids? Yes, please!

I'm once again in a guild full of nice people, many of whom I'd really like to get to know better, but with a group size of four, the options to do so in small group content are limited. Operations once again seem like the natural step up.

Oh, and did I mention yet that my SO did get to join in last night's operation? I tried to avoid looking over his shoulder all the time, but I did get to hear him talk on Mumble and I was just so insanely jealous. Not to mention that he got to hoover up all the trooper loot. Some of that was supposed to be mine, damn it! It's been months since we last raided together in WoW, and it would be so nice to be part of something bigger together again.

Too soon, Executus?

As if I wasn't feeling conflicted enough on the subject yet, there's a third voice in my head which basically thinks that raiding is cool and that I should get into it eventually, but that it's simply too early for it right now.

I mean, it looks fun and all, but there are so many other aspects of the game that I haven't explored yet! I only hit the level cap a few days ago, for goodness' sake! Do I really want to devote my limited play time to concerns about gear, consumables and ability rotations already? Again, those things are fun in their own way, but the problem is that once you start thinking of the game in those technical terms, it becomes hard to go back and simply enjoy looking at the scenery and listening to the quests again. I don't think I'm ready to make that step up yet; I'm enjoying levelling and immersing myself in the world way too much.

There are also practical concerns to consider. I'm one of those increasingly rare gamers who have no problem with devoting several nights a week to gaming on a schedule, but there's still a limit to how much I can take, and right now I'm still committing two nights a week to WoW. It's dead to me in pretty much every other regard except interaction with my guildies, but those rated battlegrounds are still damned fun and I enjoy the company. More importantly, this fun pretty much has an expiration date built in since I don't intend to purchase the Mists of Pandaria expansion once it comes out, so I don't really want to "waste" what time I have left to play the game I enjoy. (God, that sounds so melodramatic!)

In the end, it's a tricky question, with social ties tugging me both ways simultaneously. Either way I suspect that I will take part in my first SWTOR raid fairly soon, but I'll try to take it easy for now if possible, and I'm not entirely sure where I'll end up eventually.

04/02/2012

I'm usually not a big fan of posts like this...

... especially if the author doesn't post anything but the screenshot and it's their sixth alt anyway. But hey, you only hit the level cap in a new MMO for the first time once, so let's go for it! Ding!

As you can see, I was in the middle of Mortar Volley-ing a group of mobs on Corellia, and Elara was just butting in about some diplomatic mission. Later, please! For the curious, it took me a bit less than seven days of /played time, but to be fair that included quite a bit of "downtime" of me just idling at the fleet, levelling my crew skills and chatting with guildies. You can probably do it faster.

The minutes just before the ding were vaguely amusing, because while I wasn't in any particular rush to reach endgame, I still started to feel a certain suspense about my experience bar creeping closer and closer to the end. My boyfriend and I hadn't managed to stay perfectly in sync, but we were pretty close - only about 10k XP apart, which is more or less one quest hand-in at that level. We kept talking about hopefully dinging at the same time once we completed a certain amount of quests.

Eventually the Republic symbol flashed up over my fellow trooper's head just as we completed a bonus quest, but nothing happened for me. My bar looked as good as full, but upon closer inspection it turned out that I was just 1k experience points off. Killed another group of mobs - nope, still a hundred XP off! Talked to an NPC for a quest... nope, it was one of those that only counts as advancing the quest, not completing it, so no experience! When I finally dinged from killing mobs for the next mission we were on, I felt stupidly relieved - slowest 1k XP ever.

We "celebrated" our newly acquired max level by running Kaon Under Siege, the rakghoul / zombie flashpoint introduced in patch 1.1. It was very atmospheric, if very... different for Star Wars standards. I'm looking forward to the second part.

Though bloody hell, some of the trash was a nightmare. If you see any mobs called mercenaries, watch out! They have tow cables that stun you and the stun doesn't end until they get interrupted! I think during one of our most impressive wipes we pulled a bit too much and basically the entire group ended up caught in tow cable stuns and unable to do anything as we slowly died from the associated damage, since nobody remained free to break anyone else out.

It was all worth it though, as one of the bosses gifted me my very first level 50 purple. To be honest that's not something I expected to see in a normal mode flashpoint, but I'm certainly not complaining - especially considering how many more times I died than anyone else, what with nobody ever noticing the healer getting towed to death.

Up next: completing act three of my class story, doing all the flashpoints I haven't seen yet on normal mode and doing some gearing up for hard modes.

01/02/2012

My journey to 50 in review, part 1

No, I haven't actually hit 50 yet. I seem to be a bit behind a fair chunk of the blogosphere in that regard - not that I'm in a hurry or anything, but my boyfriend and me playing flu-tag over the last two weeks hasn't exactly been beneficial to our shared progress.

However, that doesn't mean that I can't get started on writing this yet, as it's going to be long enough to require splitting into several parts anyway. Basically, I want to talk about my levelling experience in general terms: which planets I liked, how I felt about my class storyline, which moments stuck in my head as memorable. (Flashpoints not so much, since I already talked about them a fair bit previously.) This way, I can look back on it later and be reminded of how I felt about my first time through the game without any distortion of memory, and maybe other people will find parts of it insightful too. I'll try to avoid story spoilers, so I'll only talk about quests and story in either very generic or mechanical terms.

Ord Mantell

I don't actually have a strong opinion on the trooper starting planet either way. I mostly remember it having a blue sky and lots of rocks. To be honest, I think I was a bit distracted by my excitement about playing this new game and trying to take everything in at once. What does this button do? What do these icons on the map mean?

I don't recall any of the quests being particularly outstanding in terms of story, but with SWTOR's unique way of presentation they still felt excitingly different from the standard MMO fare. They also gave me a good first impression of what life as a trooper was going to be like, forcing me to choose between doing what others told me to do and what I myself considered the right thing to do, which wasn't always the same.

One of my most memorable early moments was questing on Savrip Island and meeting my first champion-level mob. I didn't have a quest to kill it or anything, but just having it there was like an open challenge: Can you take me? Of course our little trooper duo had to try, and we just about managed it, though it was a close call at the time, what with none of us having many abilities yet. After a lot of kiting and aggro-swapping, the Savrip Champion finally fell to our might and dropped a blue gun. It felt very satisfying, and I immediately recalled fond memories of taking down elite mobs in the open world in WoW, back when they, you know, existed.

The second most memorable moment on Ord Mantell was trying to do a certain trooper quest. Up until then my significant other and I had run our class quests in parallel but solo, since doing them together if you're both the same class tends to drag things out a bit, as you have to do each quest twice, once with person A's decisions and once with person B's decisions.

However, this one we just couldn't complete. It required us to kill three mobs at once, with at least one of them strong I believe, with no crowd control, healing or companions. It was almost comical how we both kept dying to it over and over again. At one point I thought that I was close to getting it, since I had killed one of the trio and he hadn't respawned when the group reset after my death... but as my timer on the medical probe kept getting longer and longer, they started respawning faster than me and eventually both me and my boyfriend just went back to the medical droid and decided to try tackling the quest together. It was funny just how much of a breeze it turned out to be with the two of us together. To this day that low-level mission remains the only class quest we had to team up for.

Coruscant

Ah, the Republic's capital and the place where everyone gets their ship. It's almost embarrassing to say it, but I didn't actually like this planet very much. The Senate Plaza is gorgeous, and the Senate Tower is the first place where you really get the sense that everything in this game is absolutely huge, which is something that I love despite of the increased travel times it creates.

However, the places where you actually quest... are pretty meh. Somehow they all end up looking like boring grey tunnels and platforms. Maybe city planets just aren't for me. The quests also weren't hugely inspiring. There were definitely a couple of fun ones, but the main storyline felt very repetitive to me, as you were just clearing out one nest of thugs after the other. I feel that the Empire got the better end of the deal as far as capitals go, as Dromund Kaas offers a much more varied environment and questing experience at that level.

Around this level I also felt that experience gains were starting to run away from us a little. If you love doing flashpoints, and I do, they'll give you a fair chunk of experience. Then you get your ship, and being the curious sort I tried out space battles. I didn't really get that into them in the end, but I did do the first couple of missions, which yielded another hefty amount of XP. Level ten is also the point at which you can start running warzones, which gains you yet more experience. I don't remember the exact number, but we must have been getting close to level twenty by the time we finished Coruscant.

Now this is where something interesting happened. Our class story branched out into two parts, one to continue to Taris and one to Nar Shadaa. I didn't really look into the details of it at the time, but simply assumed that they were pointing you towards two alternate levelling zones, and we picked Nar Shadaa more or less at random. This turned out to be a bad idea, since they are actually consecutive zones, and Taris comes first in the levelling progression. While we were high enough to do Nar Shadaa right off the bat, the end result was that by the time we were done with it everything on Taris had already gone grey.

Nar Shadaa

Nar Shadaa itself, or "Hutt Vegas" as Scott Johnson calls it so aptly, didn't really impress me that much either as a zone, which I guess confirms my theory that I'm just not that into city planets. Sure, it was slightly more interesting visually, but in the end I still ended up spending a lot of my time traipsing through grey corridors.

This planet also featured our first and so far only encounter with a quest that was so bugged at the time that we couldn't figure out how to complete it and eventually just gave up. I don't remember the name, but it was a bonus quest to defend some sort of defensive turret. I wonder if they've fixed it by now.

I did love my class quest on this planet however, which netted me a new companion and had multiple laugh-out-loud funny lines. If you're a trooper and you didn't find this story entertaining, you have no heart!

Taris

After Nar Shadaa we went back to Taris briefly just to progress our class storyline. I was pleased to see that this planet looked a lot more alive and open, though I still felt like I was being "funnelled" a bit too much, as we kept running into dead ends in the ruins while trying to make our way from one sub-zone to the next. It felt very unnatural to just ignore all the quest givers, but we didn't really see the point in fighting all those grey mobs. There are always alts with which to see those quests.

Still, being so heavily overlevelled for that bit of our class quest definitely took some of the fun out of it. Everything died way too easily, and we probably spent more time just running back and forth between one trooper phase and the next than actually killing or talking to things.

After completing our class quests on both of these planets, we got a trooper mission on a special space ship, something that seems to happen every two planets or so (there was one after Coruscant too). This was one was really weird though, because it consisted mostly of a... puzzle? I was reminded of Dragon Age: Origins and how random the bridge puzzle in the Temple of Andraste seemed to me at the time; it just didn't fit. I got similar vibes from this quest, though it was a lot more straightforward. Also, it included an NPC conversation that featured a major continuity error and confused me big time until I looked it up online and saw other people pointing out that it was indeed an error and that I hadn't missed anything.

Let's conclude part 1 here. Next time: Tatooine and how things started to get a lot more interesting...

Part 2
Part 3