31/03/2012

Fan Videos

One thing I kind of miss about WoW is the community.

Wait, that kind of came out wrong.

One thing I really like about playing SWTOR now is that since the game is still relatively new, the community is smaller, more tight-knit and generally more enthusiastic about the game, at least from what I've seen. However, the downside to this is that people haven't had a chance to accumulate as much knowledge about the game yet (only today a guildie linked me to a forum thread from the beginning of March where someone was only just figuring out the maths behind how threat works in The Old Republic), or to get emotionally invested and creatively inspired by it. If you search YouTube for SWTOR videos (and judging by the myriad of related search suggestions I got, I'm not the only one doing that), the results are fairly bleak. Oh, there are plenty of videos there, but a huge amount of them are simply PvP videos or guides. Nothing wrong with those, but unless you're a hardcore PvPer these aren't really particularly entertaining. Comparatively, searching for WoW videos brings up a ton of beautiful machinimas, stories and songs, which are largely fun to watch even if you don't play the game (anymore).

Maybe this isn't a big deal for some people, but from my point of view this kind of sharing of creative works related to the game does a lot to help build community as well as serve as free advertising for the game. I remember when I had just started playing WoW back in 2006, I soon found myself digging through dozens of fan videos of the game, and while they weren't nearly as good as some of the stuff people come up with today, in terms of production quality at least, they were still greatly entertaining to me at the time and reinforced my feelings that I had chosen to play a game that was both fun to play and populated by fun people. Naked night elves dancing to YMCA in Ironforge? Hilarious!

So as I said, my search for similar SWTOR videos wasn't very successful, but I still wanted to share a couple of nice ones that I did find. These were basically my top three:

1. 12 Days of Christmas, WoW/SWTOR edition: This is a very professionally done machinima showing an undead rogue from WoW and a Sith assassin from SWTOR having a sing-off (sort of) in which they slag off each other's game in good-natured and very humorous manner. It's just a shame that the Sith remains anonymous and thus we can't search for more videos of him.

2. Goodbye Azeroth (I'm Gonna Be A Sith Lord): Not a machinima, but an original song about SWTOR. While I obviously can't relate to the desire to be a Sith Lord, I have to give mad props to a woman who writes and performs her own songs and does so well.

3. Bounty Hunter Blues: Gearing Up: This is a very simple video featuring some gameplay footage with a bit of voice-over and is only two minutes long, but the creator's self-deprecating humour made me laugh. Not to mention that if you've gone through the PvP gear-up process yourself, you're bound to be able to relate to a lot of it.

If anyone knows of any other well-made and entertaining SWTOR fan videos I'd be happy to hear about them!

28/03/2012

Unlucky In Love

I'm terrible at Bioware romances. I'll never forget my first playthrough of Dragon Age and how I magically managed to do something that pissed Alistair off pretty much every time I thought that I was finally getting somewhere with him. The whole affair eventually cumulated in him throwing a massive hissy fit at the end when I refused to make him king (after he had spent the whole game moaning about how he didn't want to be a king anyway, mind you) and running off to become a drunkard, leaving my poor warden to save the world on her own. I haven't really got any better at it since then.

From what I can gather, this seems to be a pretty unique problem, as it's quite rare that I hear about anyone not getting the romances to work the way they want to. Sometimes people will poke fun at times when they got sucked into one without meaning to, but that's pretty much it. Most of the people I talk to just seem to "min-max" their affection by researching what exactly their companion likes and then doing everything to please them, including restarting conversations if they've made a "mistake" and accidentally displeased their love interest. In SWTOR, simply hitting [Flirt] every time it comes up seems to be a pretty safe way of getting companion affection anyway.

I just can't play like that though. My characters have integrity. They won't just bend to the whims of some demanding companion. Also, I don't cope very well with how ham-fisted the romantic interactions in the game work out to be due to the way the conversation system works. In real life, flirting is often very subtle and dependent on context, not to mention that it's quite possible to be flirtatious without necessarily ending up in bed together. In an RPG however, this doesn't really work if you also want to make sure that players always know what they are getting into. Combine this with TOR's system of paraphrasing each dialogue option in three to five words, and pretty much all your flirt options end up looking something like: "[Flirt] You're quite the hunk." Yeah, um, no. I can't really see anyone saying that.

On my trooper main, the very first companion I got actually happened to be the romance option for female characters, but I immediately thought "no way" as he was pretty much just a cranky git. I remember having a companion conversation early on where I was given the option of offering to let him clean my equipment any time (uhhh) and while just reading that got a chuckle out of me it was definitely not going to be my reply of choice. However, as Aric's personal story unfolded and he gained some depth, I have to admit that he actually grew on me. I decided that I wanted to romance him after all, but apparently Bioware doesn't believe in people growing on you. Since I passed over the chance to flirt early on, it was gone, and I was friend-zoned forever. I felt rather dejected by that, especially as my boyfriend kept going on about how his trooper and Elara were discussing where to hold their wedding (or something).

Enter my Jedi consular. (This bit is going to be a bit spoilerific about Jedi consular companions, at least in so far as how you can get the romances all wrong.) I decided that she was going to be a good Jedi and would thus not pursue any romance. Of course this meant that as soon as soon as I encountered my second companion, he actively started hitting on me. At first I thought this was kind of amusing, as I stoically deflected his advances over and over again, but he didn't really seem to take no for an answer. When he eventually asked me outright to join him in his bunk I was like "NO!" and he complained about me supposedly ending our "relationship". The who with the what now? Talk about deluded. Though the worst thing for me personally was that excusing myself with the Jedi code wasn't even an option. Instead I had to tell him that we couldn't be together because his holographic girlfriend would be heartbroken. Yeah, right.

Then I got my third companion, and he was awesome! A twi'lek just like my consular, and a bit of a sociopath. Note that I do not endorse romantic entanglements with people like that in real life, but this is a game and I could immediately picture him and my consular bouncing off each other in the most interesting ways (no, not like that!)... she would break the Jedi code for someone like him! Except, it turned out that he's not romanceable. Moving on.

Then I got Lieutenant Iresso, of whom I'd heard before and who I knew was a romantic interest for female consulars. Once again I made sure to stay away from any [Flirt] options because I really didn't want to go there. Until one day he decided to tell me about how he was going to "get to know the ship a bit better" or something, and my three response options were: 1. [Flirt] 2. [Flirt] 3. "I'm not comfortable with this." (WTF, what is there possibly to be uncomfortable about when he mentions wanting to have a closer look at the ship? I mean, I get that it was probably supposed to be some sort of innuendo but it just didn't work for me at all.) I gnashed my teeth and went with one of the flirt options since the paraphrasing for the only non-flirt option made no bloody sense. We were in a cantina after all, how bad could it possibly get? In actuality, my character ended up saying something really tame and non-committal, so I hoped that this was going to be the end of it.

Nope, soon afterwards he initiated another conversation involving awkward metaphors. I just wanted to ignore any innuendo and take everything he said literally, but again all my conversation options were pretty much 1. [Flirt] 2. [Flirt] 3. Be mean! I just clicked on whatever I thought sounded evasive, but nothing that actually came out of my character's mouth sounded even remotely like what I wanted to say, and before I knew it Lieutenant Iresso was sucking face with my twi'lek lady. I was flailing around and yelling at my screen and my boyfriend just looked over my shoulder and laughed, tutting at me for breaking the Jedi code. "But I didn't want to!" I wailed. Seriously, why is "Jedi don't do that" never even an option?

At least Iresso was easy to break up with, and he didn't even give me a -1 of shame for it. Basically the conversation went like this:
"Won't the Jedi council object to this kind of thing?" (Finally someone gets it, I've been dying to say this all along!)
"Yes."
"Should we stop then?"
"Yes."
"Okay."
Phew.

At this stage the only character for whom I still have a little bit of hope in terms of future romantic entanglements is my Imperial Agent. She got to shag some guy as early as the starting zone, the dialogue gelled for me and it was entertaining. Then she flirted with another agent on Balmorra, though Kaliyo constantly made fun of me for it, and he had to go undercover so it never went anywhere.

When I first met the female romance option, I got the choice of "[Flirt] You're quite handsome" or something to that effect, while my actual thoughts were something along the lines of: "Good god, what kind of freak is this guy?!" However, he too has grown on me and it seems that I haven't missed the boat yet this time, probably because he was a bit bugged and refused to talk to me for a while. By the time five or six conversations all unlocked at once he had already grown on me, I got to flirt a bit and behold, the actual lines spoken by my character were actually pretty nice and not at all cringe-worthy. So far he hasn't been responsive to my advances, but that actually makes it more interesting to me and I'm sure I'll get there in the end. It would be nice if at least one of my characters could have some sort of love life.

25/03/2012

More Datacron Adventures

When it rains, it pours: since my little balloon ride a week ago I've found myself on another couple of wacky datacron adventures without even trying.

This past Wednesday for example our guild leader organised an event to get people the +10 stats datacron on the fleet, an endeavour that requires at least four players, though we turned up with a full operation. I expected his estimate of how long it would take us - one and a half hours - to be overly generous, but as it turned out it was actually pretty spot on. I'm sure you can get it done much, much faster if everyone actually knows what they are doing, but most of our little group (including myself) didn't have the foggiest clue of what to do. People had to be directed towards vendors, got lost, fell to their deaths, pushed the wrong buttons and got stuck in limbo. In short, it was a brilliant bit of fun. And in the end our Sage did manage to yank everyone safely onto the right ledge.

The other night I also ended up getting unexpected access to a datacron on my low-level Jedi knight. I was questing away on Taris at silly o'clock in the morning, and the number of people on the planet was in the single digits when someone asked in general whether "any of you 5" were up for helping a Jedi with getting a datacron. (As an aside, using that kind of phrasing is a great way of making a generic and open request sound more personal and increasing the likelihood that someone will respond.) I said that I was up for it depending on what it involved, and they explained that all I had to do was push a button. That sounded easy enough.

So we grouped up and I ran over to the factory where the other Jedi was already waiting. There was a grate and a console, and if one person used the latter while the other stood on top of the former, the second person would be shot upwards at an angle and (ideally) land on a bunch of pipes leading to the datacron. The other Jedi suggested that I should go first, something I hadn't even thought about since I had only expected be the one pushing the button. Still, I was happy to try it out. Unfortunately it quickly turned out that I was absolutely awful at pipe jumping and I suggested that she should go first so I could observe how she did it.

I took some comfort in the fact that it took her a couple of tries as well, though not many. When we tried to shoot me up again afterwards it seemed like my luck had only got worse. I don't know if my positioning was just that little bit off or something, but instead of landing on the pipes I kept bumping into the ceiling or getting thrown into packs of rakghouls. It was a good laugh at least. I got close to suggesting that we should just leave it be since I wasn't that bothered anyway, but eventually I reached my target after all. I sure felt proud when I finally got those last two jumps right.

The other Jedi and I parted ways with a smile, and both of us were one green matrix shard richer. It certainly wasn't something I had planned for that evening, but in the end I have to say that being used as a living rocket by a stranger was a lot more interesting than just killing rakghouls all night.

23/03/2012

Three Month Review

Kristalys talks about how she feels about the game after three months and asks others to do the same. So here I go!

First off, I'm still loving it. I actually changed my subscription plan to a longer billing cycle the other day because I have complete faith in this game keeping me entertained for a long time to come.

I'm also still playing Shintar the Commando as my main, and I don't see that changing in the foreseeable future. I do have to admit that I had second thoughts though when I first started levelling up my Sage.

Basically I originally chose to play a Commando for two reasons: one, I wanted to be a healer, and two, the soldier archetype appealed to me. Relative power or details of play style (other than which role to play in the holy trinity) didn't really factor into it.

I think Bioware has managed to make troopers feel relatively unique in the MMO landscape, in terms of how they play, but if I did have to describe Commando healing in WoW terms, I'd say it feels a bit like a cross between the Burning Crusade era holy paladin and current resto shaman, as the focus is on strong single target heals that play off each other. I really struggled with this as I was levelling up, though I think that I've become a lot better at making the most of it.

Then I rolled my Sage... and it was totally like playing a WoW priest in terms of healing. Bubble, instant heal over time, channelled heal, floor heal - considering that this is what I did in WoW for over five years it instantly felt familiar, and where my levelling combat medic struggled to do anything useful in warzones, my seer zooms all over the place and feels incredibly powerful. In PvE it's also pretty much undisputed that Sages are better than either of the other healers. I can't deny that there was a certain temptation there to return to what feels familiar and offers both versatility and raw power.

However, I think I love my trooper too much to change. She's just the character that feels the most like me, and while she may not be as awesome as she could be - due to my own limitations and that of the class - I have got better at playing her and I do feel that I'm doing sufficiently well now in both PvE and PvP. I know that might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but it's honestly enough to make me happy and that's what's important.

There are also a few things about the game that haven't exactly turned out the way I expected, both in good and in bad ways.

To get the bad out of the way first... I was slightly disappointed that some things didn't turn out to be as big of a deal in terms of time investment as I thought they would. When I was trying to get to 50 for the first time, levelling actually seemed to take quite a while and I was enjoying the slower pace, but since then it feels like my alts have been advancing pretty quickly. A warzone here, a few quests there and I ding yet again. At this rate levelling alts won't take me as long as I hoped it would - though it will still keep me busy for a long time I suppose.

There's also the issue of money. While I was levelling up I was pleasantly surprised to see that it really seemed to matter, and I wasn't always able to afford all my training as soon as it became available. Getting rank three speeder training seemed like a goal that would take me ages to achieve. Then I hit 50 and realised that just doing one round of Belsavis dailies netted me 100k credits, and a few days later I had already bought everything that I really wanted to buy. Huh, guess money isn't that big a deal after all. It still matters at least a little though, as the repair bills are pretty steep and after a few nights of dying a lot I actually have to go out and quest just to earn some cash, which is nice.

Anyway, these are pretty minor complaints and haven't really harmed my enjoyment of the game.

Things that have pleasantly surprised me are endgame and my guild. Endgame because it actually feels nicely balanced in terms of there being things to do if you just feel like messing about for a little while and in a lazy way (warzones, dailies), things to do if you have time for a slightly longer adventure (group dailies, datacron hunting) and things that can keep you busy for the entire evening (flashpoints, ops), depending on how you feel on any given night. I didn't think that I would want to raid again, but I just kind of got sucked into it and now I'm loving it.

I also like that it feels incredibly low pressure somehow. Part of it might just be my own attitude towards the game, but I do think it's telling that the weekly quest for hardmode flashpoints for example only requires you to run three of them - that's less than half of WoW's weekly quota! I actually do even fewer runs than that, but when I do join one I thoroughly enjoy it, and when I finally hand in my weekly quest three weeks later I still feel like I've achieved something because progress doesn't reset if you don't complete it within a week.

As for my guild... I was always positive about it, because I was looking forward to once again playing with friends with whom I hadn't played an MMO for a while, and I had been told nothing but good things about the guild members that were strangers to me. However, I also knew that it can be daunting to break into an established circle of friends. Even if they want to be welcoming, it's often all too easy for the "new guy" to be left out in the cold, be picked last, or flat out ignored because you simply don't know them and don't have anything to talk about.

However, everyone in the Brotherhood of Remiel had been nothing but welcoming and inclusive, always willing to group up, help out and chat. They continue to impress me with their patience and positive attitude when things don't go as planned. I actually met a guildie who happens to live in the same town as me in real life the other day, and it was good fun. In fact, it feels really weird to think that I've known some of these people for only three months, considering the relaxed way in which we banter on Mumble and in guild chat every night.

Either way, it all adds up to a very pleasant and enjoyable whole. I'm looking forward to the next three months and beyond!

18/03/2012

A Datacron Adventure

I have to confess, I've largely been ignoring datacron hunting so far, and I'm not even sure whether I should feel guilty about that or not. I've seen some comments around that getting all the datacrons that benefit your class should be part of being a good raider, and obviously it helps a little, but I wouldn't exactly expect people to make something that only increases their main stat by naught point something percent a major priority, not unless they are in a very hardcore guild at least. That's just my opinion though.

In a way it's weird that I haven't been more interested in this particular aspect of the game, considering that I rate pretty high as an explorer, but I guess there are different kinds of exploration - and sticking my nose into every last nook and cranny of the geography while levelling up isn't exactly my kind of thing.

The other night however I found myself suddenly overcome by a whimsical urge to hunt down some datacrons, with the intent of getting the right matrix shards to build myself a relic that has something other than endurance on it. As it turned out, one of the ones I needed was the infamous datacron on Tatooine for which you need to ride the Jawa balloon.

I made my way to the location where you can board the balloon, and as it turned out I had just missed its departure. According to online resources that meant that I was in for a wait of more than half an hour. I settled down under the twin suns and went semi-AFK, doing things outside the game and only checking back in every couple of minutes to see whether anything had happened.

It quickly struck me how very "old school" it is of Bioware to have a feature like this in the game, where you're flat out expected to just sit around and wait, for up to an hour in total. I'm sure many people would decry this as absolutely terrible game design today. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it though. It's not something that I would want to do all the time, but as an optional one-off thing... why not? It's certainly what I'd call an experience.

After a little while a bounty hunter showed up, and then a Jedi a little later. The Jedi didn't hang around for long though.

I soon started to feel a certain sense of kinship with the bounty hunter. We were like the only two people waiting at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. I toyed with the thought of striking up a conversation (even though he was The Enemy), but dismissed it eventually because I knew that we'd be stuck with each other for quite a while, and I didn't want to deal with the pressure of having to keep the conversation going for that long. I wanted to be able to continue AFK-ing whenever I wanted without being rude.

When the balloon finally appeared in the distance I actually became giddy with excitement. Hell, even just remembering the experience makes my heart beat a little faster again! How silly is that? I called out in general chat that the balloon was coming around soon, just in case anyone else wanted to get on. Nobody else came though.

In hindsight my call was a bit premature anyway, because that balloon is slow. I didn't time it, but I think it must have been another ten minutes at least from the time it first appeared on the horizon to when it actually came close enough to board. As I observed its slow approach I felt like someone trying to watch a kettle boil. My god, is it even moving? Barely.

The closer it got, the more excited I became. When would be the best moment to jump? Should I be on my speeder or on my own two feet? I decided on the feet. I didn't dare to go AFK anymore because I didn't want to miss the crucial moment. I also found myself wondering whether it was moving slowly enough that you'd get a chance to run back up and try again if you missed with your first jump. Fortunately I didn't have to find out. When I finally felt that it had come close enough, I jumped and landed safely right in the middle of the basket. It turned out to be pretty huge and hard to miss actually. The bounty hunter made it too.

I was relieved, knowing that I was safe for at least a while, as the flight was going to take another half hour or so to get us to the sandcrawler with the datacron on it. I went semi-AFK again, but couldn't resist having a peek at our progress at least every couple of minutes. After all, I wasn't sure when exactly I'd have to jump off. I knew the location of the sandcrawler with the datacrons on it, but I didn't know which route the balloon was going to take. It didn't really seem to be going in a straight line, drifting this way and that every now and then. I also kept spotting other sandcrawlers in the distance and then kept cross-referencing the map to figure out whether this was "the one" or not.

Finally I spotted our destination. The glow from the datacrons was visible even from quite a distance.

My heart beat faster and faster. I kept telling my boyfriend about how thrilled I was and he kept telling me that I was mad. I had just spent the last hour sitting around semi-AFK, just waiting for the silly balloon to move, how could that possibly be exciting? But it was precisely the fact that my time investment was at stake now that made it feel important. I knew that I wasn't going to try again the same night if I failed, and since I'm hardly a pro at jumping, the chance of me missing my target was definitely considerable.

I started to carefully move around the edge of the balloon. My character automatically took the first step up without me having to jump, but the outer rim did block me from just walking off by accident. But would jumping out from the inner step take me far enough? Should I try to jump and land on the very edge first? Those "ropes" looked like they might prevent me from falling, but I wasn't sure.

And then it was right there, right below us. I don't even know how I jumped, I just did. My character tumbled and took some falling damage, but landed safely on top of the sandcrawler. Victory! The bounty hunter made it too and I cheered at him, though he took no notice. He just grabbed his datacron and was gone before I knew where he had jumped off.

I hadn't really looked much into the second datacron located on a ledge off to the side, since it was a strength one and as a trooper I don't really need strength. Still, I gave it a quick shot and promptly fell right past it. I was slightly disappointed but not hugely bothered. Maybe I'll get back to it some day, maybe not - either way it's not particularly relevant to me except for completionist purposes.

But that balloon ride... that was definitely something else. I might just have to ask my guildies to give me a shout if they are going on any rides in the future; I imagine it must be even more fun with a friend in tow.

15/03/2012

More tales from the warzone

Same-server warzones continue to fascinate me, and I want to document more of my experiences with them before the developers inevitably introduce cross-server queues.

After three months of playing, hopping into a warzone in the evening is starting to feel kind of homey. I haven't really made any friends there yet and don't talk much other than to make call-outs, but chatting isn't the only form of positive interaction you can have in a game. I salute my fellow troopers and prioritise healing them when they get nuked by the enemy because I know their pain. I know that when a certain tank says that he'll be covering a door or a turret, that place is a hundred percent safe and I won't ever have to worry about reinforcing it. I frown whenever I see "Trollgar" (not his real name) join a warzone I'm in, as he's left quite an impression on me that one time he went into an idiotic rage in chat about how our healers were supposedly so bad that they might as well be non-existent - while there were actually three of us working our butts off and we were winning the game. In fairness however, he's been behaving better lately, and I've actually found myself wondering whether I should revise my opinion of him - people are complicated.

Even though my side is the lesser populated one on my server, I actually ended up in a couple of Huttball games against my own faction as of late. I commented on the strangeness of this before when it happened to me on an Imperial alt, but playing against people from my own faction whom I actually knew was surprisingly fun. No whining about mirror classes that aren't actually mirrors and seem terribly overpowered, just a bit of friendly smack talk in general chat and the feeling of having a friendly brawl instead of a heated fight to the death as you punt someone you actually quite like into the nearest acid pool.

Of course there is a downside to this familiarity as well. For example there's an operative on Imperial side who still seems to be able to take people from full health to zero within a single stunlock even after the nerf to the class, and as soon as I spot him my spirits sink. I've seen people accuse him of using exploits as well, and while I don't know whether that's true, it certainly doesn't make me feel any more optimistic about my team's chances when he shows up. Similarly, some people actually remember who the enemy healers are, and even though I'm anything but a quitter, I actually had to log off in the middle of a Voidstar the other night when it turned out to be the third game in a row where the same two Imperials repeatedly made a beeline for me as soon as I left the starting area just to kill me over and over again - it simply became too frustrating.

At least when you play against strangers, the anonymity provides you with a bit of cover (in terms of gameplay) as they won't know your strengths and weaknesses the instant they spot your name. Not to mention that you can hope that randomisation will mix things up a bit. Just because your last game went badly, that doesn't mean that your next team won't be much better and the enemy terrible. In a same-server environment, you're much more likely to keep losing over and over again unless a lot of new players join the queue at once and mix things up.

Not really related to the same-server warzones in specific, but I'm starting to see why people have been referring to the acquisition of PvP gear in SWTOR as a harsh grind. I'm almost at valor rank 40 now and still mostly wearing Centurion gear because I lose the vast majority of my games and can spend entire evenings without getting a single win, which means no Champion bag for the day... and when I do get a bag, I never seem to get any gear tokens out of it. I wanted to hit my head against the desk the other night when a guildie mentioned that he had only just started trying out this PvP thing and proudly showed off the Champion chest piece he had got out of one of his first bags. Cursed, I say!

Still, I grin and bear it, because at the end of the day I'm still having fun sending little helicopters down on my allies and shooting them with green laser beams of goodness.

11/03/2012

Enjoying Endgame

One thing that has taken me somewhat by surprise is just how much I'm enjoying the endgame in The Old Republic. I mean, I was really looking forward to the game, but even so I thought that I would spend most of my time levelling alts in order to enjoy the different class stories, the roleplaying and the voice acting. However, as it stands, my alts' progress keeps stalling because I'm having too much fun on my main, which is certainly not the worst problem in the world to have, but still... surprising.

Operations are ridiculously fun. And to think that I believed that I was burnt out on raiding for good... This week my guild managed to clear both raids on normal mode for the first time and it was simply a blast for everyone involved.

Getting Soa down felt like a true achievement and a great team effort all around, not to mention that there was something quite amusing about people shouting directions left and right in order to convey where to move the boss in the final phase. My favourite was probably: "No, it's coming down over there where Shintar's standing. In fact, Shintar, move!"

In Karagga's Palace my boyfriend and I were working like a well-oiled machine as our group's dedicated console operating team on the puzzle boss, and when Karagga himself died, he sent our smuggler into a bit of a frenzy by dropping his hat on him. Indeed, no raid group should be without one of these.

I liked this post by Calli on Dude, Where's My Bantha? on the subject of SWTOR operations. Even though he plays in a much more hardcore guild, I can't help but echo his feelings when he says: "About halfway through I felt something I’d not felt raiding since Karazhan and Ulduar in World of Warcraft. Is that… am I… yes I do believe that’s fun."

However, even on nights when we don't have any operations scheduled, I just keep getting sucked into things. It starts innocently enough as I just log onto my main to check my mail, send companions on missions and so on, and then I think: Hm, I could run a few warzones to try and get the PvP daily done - it's not that much effort, is it? This line of thinking rarely works out because I seem to end up losing a lot more games than I'm winning, but I'm still enjoying it because the gameplay is fun and people are generally in good spirits even when things aren't going in the Republic's favour.

Next thing I know a guildie is asking whether anyone wants to join for dailies. I rarely bother on my own because it tends to be a bit tedious, but in a group they are good fun. Pretty much as soon as we have four people online, someone will then ask whether anyone wants to do a hardmode flashpoint and off we go. There goes the rest of my evening and my alts remain unplayed once again.

I never quite understood Syl's frequently expressed dislike for alts, and I'm still convinced that I will get around to levelling more of them eventually, but I do have to admit that there's something very enjoyable about simply wanting to play your main all the time because there's so much to do and it's a lot of fun. For a game that's so heavily focused on offering replay value on different characters, SWTOR is certainly doing a good job at keeping me occupied with other things.

04/03/2012

Reasons to play a trooper

After hitting 50 it actually took me several weeks to complete my class story, even though there wasn't that much left of it. It's interesting that despite of the great advances that Bioware has made with the questing in The Old Republic, I'm still having the same issue that I always had in WoW: I struggle to continue questing after the level cap. It's not even that I don't enjoy it anymore, it's just that it doesn't feel like the natural thing to do after logging in, you know? I actually have to tell myself specifically that, okay, today I'll take care of those quests that I still have left in my log, or else I'll just end up going off to do some random PvP, dailies or a flashpoint with friends. Am I the only one with this problem?

Anyway, after finally finishing my class quest I wanted to spend some time reflecting on trooper life in general. While it's hard to make fair comparisons to the other classes' stories, seeing how I haven't completed any of them yet, I do think that I have enough of a vague idea to have noticed some differences. No major spoilers.

One thing that I really like about trooper life is that the relationship with your companions feels a lot more natural than it does while playing most other classes. I don't think I'm spoiling much by saying that they all end up being members of your squad, so it makes sense that you fly around on the same ship and go on missions together. I haven't really got similar vibes from any of the other class stories so far, where a new companion joining you mostly seems to come down to: "I like you or at least want to follow you around all day for some other personal reason." That's a fairly typical storytelling trope really, but compared to the simple logic of the trooper squad it strikes me as inferior.

From a practical point of view I've also come to realise that troopers are really lucky to already have three companions by the end of Nar Shadaa who cover all three roles of the holy trinity. You might not necessarily like their personalities, but at least you won't be stuck with a companion that's completely unsuitable for your playstyle for long (unlike a lot of other classes apparently).

Also, I think the trooper is the only class whose entire set of companions uses the same main stat as the trooper him- or herself. This is great because you can basically create a chain of hand-me-downs from your favourite to your least favourite character, which makes gearing easy and even your worst companion should never be completely useless. You can even make them wear spare pieces of tier gear that you don't need! (Personally I have a lot of gearing up to left to do, but for some reason the RNG keeps blessing me with pairs upon pairs of unneeded gloves.) The only downside is that you might start to feel slightly jealous of guildies who ask "Can I need on that for my companion?" on pretty much every drop because you never really have that excuse.

As far as the trooper class story goes, from the starter areas I've seen so far I thought that the trooper had one of the best tie-ins to the main plot of the class story's Act I. With other classes I often felt that the starter planet was a self-contained mini story that had little to no relevance to the main plot that was dropped on my head immediately afterwards, but for the trooper the entirety of your starter experience is pretty much a powerful set-up for what comes later.

Otherwise I think the main point that stood out to me over the course of the trooper story is that it's a story about being a hero of the people. When you start out as a Jedi of either flavour, you're basically being told that you're special from the moment you arrive on Tython. You may not have done anything remarkable yet, but people can tell that you're extraordinarily strong in the Force and that by itself is amazing. As a newly created trooper on the other hand you're being told that you're being given a chance to join Havoc Squad due to past achievements, but otherwise you're pretty much a normal person who just happens to be both smart and strong and is slowly working their way up.

This gives the trooper story a very "down to earth" feeling in my opinion, something that I personally liked, but I could also see why someone might find it unappealing. You get to kick butt, but probably not quite as much as a Force user. You're also a soldier, which means that you'll always have superiors bossing you around to an extent. Unlike a smuggler for example, you're not just your own (wo)man - you have a duty. In that regard, I don't think that the trooper has a true equivalent on Imperial side either - Imperial Agent is probably the closest, but they still get to live a considerably more independent life due to the nature of their assignments.

01/03/2012

How hardmode Esseles kicked my butt - and I kicked back

There's been some interesting discussion about the difficulty of hardmode flashpoints in SWTOR as of late. I'd like to add my own impressions to the mix, though I'll also state up front that I'm not laying claim to any objectivity.

As isn't unusual in many guilds, we've had players progress at a very mixed pace. Some people had already run dozens of hardmodes before others even hit the level cap. That's how these things go. Being one of the somewhat slower players myself, I was slightly worried about setting foot into a hardmode flashpoint for the first time, because I didn't want to be the weakest link and make a fool out of myself in front of more experienced players if possible.

As a result I was delighted when a tanking guildie whispered me last week to ask whether I wanted to do HM Esseles and we ended up with full party of "hardmode noobs". We didn't really have a clue what to expect, but since we were all in the same boat there was no real performance pressure either. Why the Esseles by the way? "I've heard Esseles is the easiest hardmode and the best one to start with for new players."

I'll give you a moment to recover from laughing. If you're not laughing, it's probably because you're not aware that the Esseles is actually considered one of the hardest flashpoints currently in the game. But at the time we didn't know that either.

So we ventured forth happily, learned that trash was easy but still hit considerably harder than on normal mode, and then wiped to the first boss within a matter of seconds. Oops? In hindsight, the fight isn't even particularly complex or anything, but as it turns out there are still a lot of things that you can mess up if you don't know any better.

- The boss absolutely has to be turned away from the group at all times. I know this is a standard boss fight trope, but there are also enough fights where it doesn't really matter so I can't blame anyone for not doing it automatically. It does matter here however, because otherwise the boss's frontal cone AoE will shave off half your party's health in one hit. Ouch.

-The adds that he spawns at regular intervals also vexed us for several attempts. At first they just ran past the tank and mauled me. Another time I used my AoE knockback to get them off me, but then they were so spread out that our damage dealers couldn't kill them in time. Another time the tank chased after them and the boss ended up turning around... and I refer you to the previous point.

-Finally we had agreed for the tank to keep the boss right where he spawns and do his main AoE move every time an add wave spawned. Now we had our dps unleashing their own AoE too quickly, so the adds turned around and hit our scoundrel all at once - splat.

Eventually we managed to get everything right, with the boss standing in the right place, adds getting picked up and nobody pulling aggro. We hit the enrage timer but still managed to kill him, and much cheering was to be heard on Mumble.

Then we moved on to the next boss, Ironfist... and seemed to stand no chance at all. We must have had another dozen attempts or so on him, but we made very little progress and eventually it became late and people had to stop for the night. The problem was mainly that he needed a lot of interrupting, while at the same time having a bit of a habit of knocking people down and away (and thus out of melee range) - not to mention that our group contained two Commandos, the only advanced class without an interrupt. Woe. The only thing we knew for sure at the end of the night was that we really wanted to kill First Officer Haken for yelling "Get us out of here!" non-stop every time we arrived on the bridge.

Still, there were no signs of annoyance or bitterness as we parted ways for the night. At worst our tank seemed a bit confused by the difficulty, considering what he had heard about the Esseles being easy. None of us really had a problem with it though, and everyone agreed that failure was expected the first time and that we'd eventually come back and kick Ironfist's butt.

The other night a group for the Esseles formed up in guild again, not consisting of the same four people, but it did include both me and the aforementioned scoundrel. We had both received a couple of gear upgrades since the last time though, and were quite looking forward to getting our revenge.

The first boss went down really quickly. Ironfist made everyone a little nervous since nobody had made it past him before apparently, but he too died on the first attempt - though he enraged at the very end and two of us were hugging the floor by the time he died.

The bonus boss was a complete pushover. The third one was a bit harsh on our two melee dps since as far as I could tell there was no way to tell when exactly he was going to activate his red aura of death (one of them died to it too), but he still went down without too much difficulty.

The fourth boss was the only one that wiped us once, as there were too many incidents of people not moving out of the purple lightning in time and the damage became too much. We quickly identified the problem though, namely that the damage started ticking pretty much a second after the purple circles appeared on the floor, so if you were waiting for them to appear before moving, it would inevitably be too late. On the next attempt we kept running in circles non-stop like a bunch of loonies (not a happy situation to be in for a Commando healer, let me tell you that), only pausing briefly every now and then just after he had placed his circles and people hardly took any damage at all unless they were targeted by his sabre throw attack. He enraged, but our tank hit his cooldowns and managed to tank him for another ten seconds or so, which was enough to get him down. Flashpoint completed! This was certainly a very satisfying experience, and I now feel confident in my ability to tackle all the remaining hardmodes that I haven't seen yet.

So for me personally, the difficulty of hardmode flashpoints is pretty much just right, and while I know that that's very subjective, I do wonder how much of the annoyance I've seen in comments on the subject actually comes from misguided expectations. This isn't current day WoW, where heroics are just a low stepping stone for raids. This is basically Burning Crusade endgame version 2.0, and that means that hardmode flashpoints are an alternative to raiding, not a precursor. They do drop the same quality of loot as normal mode raids as well.

Of course not all raid bosses and hardmode flashpoints are made equal, and again that's very much a reflection of WoW's Burning Crusade endgame, where getting a drop off Attumen in Karazhan was a lot easier than getting anyone to kill Kargath Bladefist in heroic Shattered Halls. However, I don't actually see that as a bad thing - it means that players are able to choose their own difficulty, depending on whether they feel up to a challenge today or just want to tackle something relatively easy. It also means that large group content isn't the only thing to do at endgame, as you can make progress both in terms of gear and skill with your smaller group of friends as well. Last night for example we didn't have enough people to run an operation, so we just did some hardmodes instead and still got equally valuable gear upgrades.

I guess the biggest problem with this system is simply that it's not exactly very transparent. Many people coming over from WoW might simply be put off by the initial shock of small group content being this challenging, even if they are perfectly capable of handling it if they work on it. And of course making the most of the variable difficulty relies heavily on people looking for information from third parties to find out which bosses are easier and which ones are harder, and that information might turn out to be wrong as well as my little anecdote at the beginning shows. It's certainly very counter-intuitive for the Esseles, the first and easiest flashpoint that players encounter in the game, to have one of the toughest hardmodes.