30/12/2014

Reviewing Shadow of Revan's Story

Back when Rise of the Hutt Cartel came out, I played through its story on Republic side and immediately wrote a post about it. Then I didn't play the Imperial side of the story until nearly three months later, and it ended up feeling completely different - this changed my first impression of the Republic storyline considerably. To avoid this happening again, I decided that I wasn't going to review Shadow of Revan's story until I had seen both sides of it. After having played through the Republic version three times and the Imperial version once, I think I'm finally in a position to formulate a well-rounded opinion.

First off, experiencing the story of Shadow of Revan on both sides of the faction fence immediately reveals its biggest flaw: that it's the same for both sides. In a game where the levelling content for both factions is nearly 100% unique (exceptions are the shared flashpoints and the rare times when the story overlaps, such as with "the thing Czerka found" on Tatooine), this is a big deal, and not in a good way. Having two factions and not making them feel different is a big issue. I took Blizzard to task for this in Cataclysm (where there was in-game evidence of quest NPCs and their quest text literally having been copy and pasted to the other faction hub) - though to be fair, from what I've read about the game they seem to have gone back on this at least a little since then and injected WoW with some new faction-specific stories again. However, in a game that prizes its storytelling as highly as Bioware does, this kind of thing is an even bigger faux-pas.

There are two reasons I'm not more up in arms about it. First off, it makes sense from a story point of view, and we've never had a story quite like this before. Republic and Empire have previously fought against common threats, such as on Oricon, but they were never actually united in this. If anything, there was always an edge of competition to the feel of these storylines, of proving that your faction had a handle on the situation while the enemy clearly didn't. Shadow of Revan is the first time that multiple representatives of the Republic and Empire actually work together against a common enemy, and considering the scope of the threat that is revealed eventually, it makes sense. I'll be okay with this being what it is, as long as it doesn't become a trend to save money on production values.

Speaking of which, this is the second reason I'm willing to forgive Bioware for making the story the same for both factions - because, somewhat bizarrely to be honest, they didn't try to reduce production costs nearly as much as they could have. That is to say, while some lines of dialogue are identical across factions, most of them aren't, even when they easily could have been. In fact I found it strangely fascinating during my first Imperial playthrough to observe how Bioware made each scene play out slightly differently, even as I already knew the eventual outcome. The early bar scene on Rishi is a great example: the actual sequence of events that occurs there is exactly the same for both factions, but for some reason the dialogue is ever so slightly different: the barkeep chides people with different words, the Rodian insults you in a different manner, and your choice of responses is slightly different as well.

It's almost as if Bioware's writers wrote different versions of each scene and at the very end they assigned them to the two factions in a mix and match pattern. I say this because I didn't notice a clear faction bias - in some cases I found the Imperial version more informative or atmospheric, in others the Republic version. Either way this gives me hope that we're not headed towards a future of blindly copy and pasted faction stories.


Seeing Darth Marr and Satele Shan co-operate for once is both interesting and novel... but let's not make a habit out of it.

Now I've said a lot about Shadow of Revan's story without actually talking about the story itself. Apart from following the same lines for both factions, is it any good? Personally I think the answer is yes, though it's not without flaws.

I think one thing Shadow of Revan's story does extraordinarily well compared to many other stories in the game is flow. With many of the existing planetary stories, I've often felt that the only reason I know that they are approaching their end is because I'm being sent to the last zone on the planet. Otherwise they just kind of plod along - you usually know where you want to get to eventually, but until you can actually go there you first have to go down a checklist of tick boxes, such as disabling some generators or taking out a certain highly-ranked mook.

Shadow of Revan doesn't feel like that. It starts with the mystery of why you're being sent to Rishi, which is light-hearted and gets resolved quickly. Then you start fighting the Revanites and their allies, and that bit does feel pretty standard - until it's revealed that all this is part of an even bigger plan that needs to be foiled and requires Empire and Republic to agree to at least a temporary truce. Then you go to Yavin 4 and the ante gets upped even more. The tension between the factions is palpable, and a big surprise revelation awaits. Basically, the story starts out small and builds up to something really big, and you can feel that throughout.

Pre-3.0 I had read that the devs wanted to use Shadow of Revan to finally put a proper end to Revan's story. I honestly wasn't sure how this was supposed to work, because as far as I was concerned his story had already ended in the Foundry, and seemingly bringing him back from the dead was kind of the opposite of giving him a good ending. The final showdown with Revan and its ending convinced me though. This was a better ending than simply having him go insane and die at the end of a mid-level flashpoint, plus it set up the next big threat very nicely. It was an ending that left me satisfied, and after the camera zoomed out from my character and her NPC allies I half expected Star Wars credits to start rolling.

If I had to criticise anything, it would be that the transition from the first part of the story towards fighting the Revanites is a bit lacking. Unlike others, I don't see a problem with our characters having to fight "lowly pirates", considering that for all our power, we don't have the backing of the Republic or the Empire at this point and pretty much have to do everything ourselves. However, the pirate town starts off as being portrayed as kind of silly, and that impression sticks, so the pirates you end up fighting never entirely feel like worthy opponents. Likewise the Revanites don't seem very threatening at all initially. You're told that they are building a massive secret fleet on Rishi, but when you go to their base it doesn't seem much more dangerous than the pirate town, and you only get to blow up three small shuttles. It's only when the Republic and Imperial fleets arrive and you're given a sudden infodump about Revan's overarching plans that you kind of go: "Whoa, okay, this is kind of a big deal." (On a side note, the Imperial discussion of Revan's plans leaves out an important detail for some reason - Rohan for example was quite confused by this as the story didn't quite add up from that perspective.)


Fun fact: This iconic and frequently reused shot of Revan can only be seen in the Imperial version of the story.

It could also be argued that Shadow of Revan's story is (too) short, which depends on your perspective. It's true that isn't a WoW expansion with ten new levels of fetch quests to keep you busy. But compared to SWTOR's own previous story expansion, it holds up well. I haven't actually timed it, but after having replayed Makeb only recently, I'm fairly sure that SoR offers just as much, if not more story in terms of actual conversations. It just feels like it goes by more quickly because Bioware made a conscious decision to include less "padding" in the form of quests that send you all around the houses just to talk to a single NPC, or bonus missions that ask you to kill 50 mercenaries. I consider that a good thing to be honest, and I think it's telling that less than a month after release, I've already completed this storyline on four characters, while I already felt sick and tired of Makeb after only two playthroughs right after its launch.

27/12/2014

Peace and Presents to All

I hope that everyone is getting to enjoy the holiday season in some form or another. Until last year I worked in retail, where this time of year meant more work, plus bans on the ability to take time off, so I definitely don't take it for granted to be able to spend additional time with my loved ones.

I got a nice game-y Christmas present this year too: an Android tablet. Sadly this doesn't offer any direct benefit to my SWTOR playing, but I'm hoping that I'll be able to use it for things like checking up on blogs during my lunch break, leaving me with more time to actually play in the evenings. I'll also have to start paying more attention to the multi-game blogs that I read - until now everything related to mobile gaming pretty much made my eyes glaze over as I don't own a smartphone, but now I'm obviously open to recommendations for my new tablet.

In SWTOR I haven't been doing much for Life Day, but I do have to say I'm kind of enjoying how they seem to be expanding on it slowly every year. Not every event has to be about doing quests. (In fact, designing all events by following the same formula runs a big risk of making them too samey.)


I like how they expanded on last year's snowball throwing for parcels with the "Overheated Gift Droids" on the capital worlds, which have a chance of giving you one of four Life Day tree decorations when you throw snowflakes at them. It's kind of funny to watch people move around en masse, pelting the droids with snowballs and then trying to find the next spawn as soon as possible. After getting the one hundred parcel achievement last year, I felt a bit burnt out on throwing snowballs this time around, but I still managed to get several of each of the new decorations already.

Bioware's Cartel Market offerings for the season seem to have become better as well, and their new Life Day Bundle is great. I think it shows that strongholds were a good investment for them in terms of the Cartel Market because the introduction of decorations makes it much easier to create "themed" items, without having to reach quite so hard to come up with a suitable speeder or outfit. I mean, how awesome is that wampa rug? If I could buy that separately I would carpet my whole stronghold with wampas. (I'm joking... or am I?) The only disappointment in my opinion has been the "12 days of SWTOR" sale that they've been advertising on the forums, mostly because it includes nothing but Cartel packs, and even those don't exactly have huge discounts on them. But oh well, I guess we can file that one away as another one of their "sales tactics experiments". (Then again, looking at Dulfy's comment section, it might actually have earned Bioware a nice amount of cash already.)


Happy Life Day, everyone!

22/12/2014

Three Years of Going Commando

As I started blogging about SWTOR only a few days after I started playing it, my birthday post for the game is always quickly followed by a birthday post for the blog. Happy blogday to me!

As usual, I shall celebrate by having a more personal retrospective of what the game has been like for me in the past year and how I wrote about it.

I actually rang in the new year while logged into the game and mused about how having party bombs thrown at me on the fleet was also a kind of social experience. After I had spent some time playing different MMOs throughout 2013, I also concluded that it was kind of sweet to go back to my "home MMO" full time, for a variety of reasons. I did a bit of PvP and reached Warlord rank on Shíntar. (Nearly a year later and I'm still nowhere near Elite Warlord. I guess I don't PvP enough.) Datamined information and teasers from Bioware suggested that the rakghoul world event was going to make a return, and I decided that I was more than ready for it. Two days later it went live, and I had a blast.

At the beginning of February we were treated to a roadmap for 2014, and I expressed concerns that it didn't look like we were going to get a new operation any time soon (which turned out to be true). I also complained that GSF was getting too much attention, which is kind of funny in hindsight, considering that Bioware seems to have done a complete 180 on that one. Soon after that, we received our first (and still only) level- and role-neutral flashpoint in the form of Kuat Drive Yards. I thought that it was decent fun as levelling content, but boring at max level. In patch 2.6, Combat Medics saw major changes to their spec for the first time in over a year, and I enjoyed suddenly feeling kind of OP.

In March we got our first glimpse of Galactic Strongholds, which raised a lot of questions. We didn't know half of all the good stuff that was yet to come. Nightmare mode for Dread Fortress and Palace were scheduled to release with a built-in way to easily nerf them later, which annoyed some people (though not me personally). I finally put an observation into words that I had already made a long time ago, namely that Sentinel players seem to be the most restless of all classes. The term "Twitchy Sentinel Syndrome" has certainly stuck with me and my pet tank. March was also the month in which I got to kill the Dreadful Entity for the first (and so far only) time and got to die to its Hateful (and stronger) equivalent a lot, even though both were already outdated content by that time.

On April 1st I was worried that Bioware might have forgotten about April Fools this year, but they were just late with releasing it. Inspired by other people's contributions on the subject, I wrote a post about how it would be nice to have day/night cycles and/or weather in SWTOR (but I also understood that there were reasons for not having them). Levelling my Shadow through Quesh inspired me to write about the things levelling teaches us. The Forged Alliances story arc got started with Assault on Tython and Korriban. Four and a half months after the release of GSF, I also mastered my first ship - not bad for someone with very limited interest and skill in space combat. I was somewhat embarrassed when I finally maxed out my last companion's affection on Republic side and realised that I was about one and a half years late, considering when I had actually finished the associated class stories. (Fun fact: On Empire side I only got this done the other week... also over a year late.)

May was a comparatively quiet month. I worked on some random PvE pursuits, which included getting datacrons I had previously missed and clearing out some old missions on alts. Meanwhile my guild struggled with nightmare mode in Dread Fortress.

In June I suddenly developed an interest in Aurebesh, the alphabet in which text is written in the Star Wars universe, and started to transcribe various posters and signs I encountered. Patch 2.8 launched and broke the servers for several days, which caused some major annoyance. It later turned out that this was due to bad optimisation in Bioware's new 16-person group finder, which basically caused it to lag the servers to death. It was quickly reverted to 8-man as an emergency fix, though it was eventually returned to 16-man mode later in the year and without crashing the servers. The Nar Shaddaa nightlife event launched and failed to impress me. As I found a new full-time job that month, I struggled with the fact that I now had less time to play.

At the start of July I expressed consternation at many people considering SWTOR "old" at the mere age of two and a half years. That month I also achieved the Datacron Master title at last, thanks to some helpful guildies that held my hand all the way to the Endurance datacron on Makeb. I definitely wouldn't have made it there on my own. I also mused on how Bioware's secret anti-goldseller sauce seemed to be failing (though thinking about it now, I haven't actually seen any gold sellers recently).

August saw the rakghouls make a return on Tatooine, which was once again good fun. After a delay of several months, Galactic Strongholds was also finally released, and I wrote about my first impressions here.

In September I got to wrap up the Forged Alliances story arc in Depths of Manaan and Legacy of the Rakata, but otherwise my month was largely dominated by the new conquest feature introduced with Galactic Strongholds: figuring out its purpose, getting my guild into the top ten on a planetary leaderboard and thinking about the long-term effects of its addition to the game. In ops news, my guild finally managed to kill the Dread Guards in TFB on nightmare mode, which ended a personal grudge of mine that had lasted for over a year.

October saw me buying my first Hypercrate from the Cartel Market. I was kind of baffled by how unprofitable it was, though it appealed to my strange enjoyment of inventory management. Shadow of Revan was announced, bringing many exciting bits of news with it. Finally, I wrote about how I felt that Galactic Strongholds had changed the way we travel around The Old Republic.

In November I made use of the 12x XP bonus for class stories granted to subscribers who pre-ordered the expansion. Despite my initial scepticism, I was quite content with the way it allowed me to level both my long-neglected second Sorcerer and my almost equally ignored second Powertech to 55.

December was the month of Shadow of Revan's release of course, so I wrote about my first impressions of the expansion, my slightly odd levelling experience and how it was affected by bugs, and my first impressions of the two new operations. I'm also still trying to re-learn how to play (sigh).

I hope everyone else's year was just as full of interesting events!

20/12/2014

Happy Third Birthday, SWTOR!

It's that time of year again... to wish The Old Republic a happy birthday! It was three years ago today that the game officially launched, after having had an early access period of several days. As usual, I'd like to talk a bit about what's been going on in the game in the past year.


Shíntar the trooper over the course of three years - if there's a theme here, I'd say it's "bigger guns".

If I had to sum it up in two words, I think the general attitude on display this year could be summed up as "cautiously optimistic". SWTOR's first year was full of hype but also suffered from a lot of negativity, and while the situation stabilised in 2013, the shadow of all that bad press still seemed to hang over the game to some extent. This year, year-on-year revenue was apparently down, but EA actually dared to talk about the game again and proudly announced that it has a million monthly players these days. We even got an infographic, which - while not necessarily containing all the information we would have liked - showed that the people at the top are at least confident enough about the game again to let us see some numbers.

The community has been thriving as well. After the year started off on a bit of a sad note, with major fan sites Darth Hater and TORWars closing up shop, new contenders quickly sprang up like mushrooms after the rain, and I've had to expand my blog's section of SWTOR links multiple times this year.

How has SWTOR been doing in terms of new content releases? We got both a story and a feature expansion, just like we did in 2013. Bioware nearly missed the boat with operations by letting us sit on Oricon for over a year, but since they managed to squeeze in two new ops before the end of the year with the release of Shadow of Revan, they still came out as being roughly on track. We also saw an unprecedented number of new flashpoints, with a total of six new releases in 2014.

You could also say that we got two new world events this year, depending on your interpretation of what counts as such. The Rakghoul Resurgence was definitely an event, but was it truly new? Personally I thought that it was different enough from the original Rakghoul event to count as a genuinely new addition. The other new event was Soovada, which was definitely new - but not that much of an event in my opinion.

PvPers were a bit neglected as we only saw a single new warzone this year, Quesh Huttball, which - while a fun and different way to play Huttball - didn't introduce a new type of gameplay. The ranked arena seasons kept chugging along steadily but didn't seem to attract a huge amount of interest. I suspect that the talk of endless queues and queue-syncing cheaters served as a deterrent to many.

Overall I feel that it's been a year that's had the dev team very focused on certain key features - such as the introduction of housing and conquests, the revamp of the talent trees into the new discipline system, and telling the story leading up to Shadow of Revan - but that provided relatively little filler and quality of life changes in-between. For example we saw no new playable species or companion this year, nor did we get any new questing areas until the expansion (whereas 2013 saw CZ-198 and Oricon released as patches). It's no wonder that some of the periods between major releases felt a little bleak. However, I'm hopeful that with all these new systems firmly in place now, Bioware will be able to refine things in the upcoming year and put some work into adding to and improving areas of the game that have been a little neglected in 2014.

18/12/2014

Hey there, Makeb!


You may be asking why I'm spending time on Makeb when we only just got a new expansion and it's all about Rishi and Yavin 4. Well, there were several reasons for me to give Makeb some love this week.

First off, I quite like to try alternate levelling paths on alts, both for variety and to see how content from the previous level cap holds up as levelling content for the next expansion.

Secondly, my experience levelling my main made it quite evident that just questing on Rishi and Yavin 4 isn't actually enough to level all the way from 55 to 60. As my Sage had also already completed the Forged Alliances arc pre-3.0, I wanted to look for alternate sources of XP right away instead of finding myself struggling at 58. As she had never completed Makeb, it was an obvious candidate for a bonus round.

And finally, I just wanted to give Makeb another chance. I remember feeling incredibly burnt out on it very quickly after Rise of the Hutt Cartel's launch, but looking at it objectively, I only actually completed the story twice on Republic side. It was definitely time for a fresh look.

All in all, it was more enjoyable than I remembered. I think it helped a lot that I didn't feel like I "should" be doing Makeb anymore. It's easier to enjoy questing there when you're simply there because you feel like it, not because you have that nagging feeling in the back of your head that you "should" complete Makeb because the game treats it as chapter four of your class story. (I'm not sure if other people had this problem, but I did.)


I also discovered a few small touches that I hadn't really noticed before. I've previously criticised Makeb for feeling too samey on different classes, but I was pleasantly surprised for example when my Sage meditated on a broken console (see above screenshot) instead of simply smacking it, like my trooper and smuggler had done. So there are some differences there.

I'd also forgotten that while companions don't comment during conversations on Makeb, they do have some quips to share as you make your way around the various mesas and progress through the main storyline. My Sage had Lieutenant Iresso with her throughout the whole thing and some of his comments (which were obviously new to me) actually made me chuckle.

So all in all, it wasn't that bad. For the curious, I finished the main story at 57, after having been fully rested throughout. I did all the associated bonuses but skipped the side missions, and I also mixed things up with a couple of PvP matches.

The Cartel Mining Mesa is still an awful place though.

15/12/2014

Relearning to Play in 3.0

During my first operation at 60 I really struggled with healing. Not just because some fights were harder than story modes usually are or because of the heightened movement requirements (which I'm not a fan of). Something just felt "off" about my healing - I ran low on ammo at unexpected moments, things were on cooldown when I didn't expect them to be and my heals generally felt vaguely sluggish... but I wasn't sure why.

It was only when I sat down after the op and had a closer look at my talent tree discipline railroad and made sure to read all the tooltips that I realised just how much my spec had actually changed. Clearly I shouldn't have trusted the devs quite so much when they said that gameplay for individual specs wouldn't feel all that different... because "under the hood" they changed a lot more about Combat Medics than I had expected. I suppose the linearity of the new discipline system lulled me into a false sense of security, making me think that surely everything I was used to would still be there... but this was not the case.

For example they swapped the cast times of Medical Probe and Advanced Medical Probe around, and more importantly, they completely reversed their synergy. It used to be that you wanted to cast AMP first, and then follow it up with a MP, because this MP would now cost less ammo. Now it's exactly the other way round, and by casting up to three Medical Probes you can make your next Advanced Medical Probe cheaper. It's no wonder that I was struggling while doing exactly the opposite of what I'm supposed to be doing under the new system.

The new indicators on the UI that highlight procs and the like are also of limited usefulness from what I've seen, because they don't take into account that abilities can be affected by more than one proc.


As an example, the above screenshot could mean that my next Advanced Medical Probe is an instant cast... or not, as it looks exactly the same when I've cast three Medical Probes to simply reduce the AMP's ammo cost, without affecting its cast time. Again, during my first op I was actually kind of confused by this, frequently hitting the ability when it was highlighted, expecting it to be instant, and then being thrown for a loop when it wasn't. I've since learned that I can't rely on the highlight to provide me with useful information and have to manually keep an eye on which effect is about to come up - but that kind of defeats the point of the feature, doesn't it?

If this sounds kind of like a rant, it's not really meant to be. I can stomach having to relearn some things; I guess I'm just a bit disappointed that it's going to be more work than I expected. I'm not a fan of the nitty gritty of calculating perfect ability rotations and stuff like that. I suppose if anything I would like this to be a warning to people to not make the same mistake I made and expect that their class will play just the way it always has - or you might be in for an unpleasant surprise.

09/12/2014

New Ops: Good Stuff, Needs Some Work

I've always loved what Bioware does with operations. Their newest ones are solid additions to the lot, but I have to admit that for once my first impression was immediately marred by a couple of things that I found worth criticising.

We knew that 3.0 would add two new operations to the game. It kind of went without saying that at least one of them would feature Revan in some way, but if the other one didn't... what could it possibly be about to rival Revan in importance? Apparently the answer is: random pirates.

The Ravagers

The intro mission and entrance to this operation are located in a corner of the slums under Rishi, hidden away so well that I completely missed them during my first tour of the planet.

The intro basically consists of a gruff pirate walking up to you to complain about how his second-in-command backstabbed him, and you offer to help him if he will do some work for the Republic in turn (or for the Empire I presume, depending on how you roll). This felt slightly weird to me. We've never had an operation before that wasn't about something at least moderately threatening to the galaxy as a whole, be it ancient Rakata force users, scheming Hutts or servants of the Dread Masters. I suppose I can't blame the devs for making us face a lesser threat for a change but... seriously, random pirates? That barely would have been enough to justify a flashpoint in the past!


In terms of gameplay, Ravagers is what I would call a cinematic operation in the style of Scum and Villainy, meaning that you get the feeling that you're not just moving between bosses but actually advancing the story along each step of the way. For example you end up hijacking the enemy captain's ship over the course of the operation. Mostly this is well done, except for the ending, where a sudden twist occurs that is only really conveyed via a brief voice-over in the middle of the last boss fight and which is easy to miss. This has the potential to cause a little confusion over what just happened.

Temple of Sacrifice

This is the "Revan operation" and has a more traditional "lair feel" to it, aka: "go in and kill various minions that stand in your way until you get to the big bad at the end". This isn't a bad thing and it's done well enough, even if I feel that the more cinematic style is better at playing towards Bioware's strengths.

The final encounter has a pretty epic feel to it without being overly difficult. Having to move in three dimensions reminded me of Soa (whom I personally loved), even if you're going up rather than down this time. (And beware the stair boss!)


Overall I liked both operations and they seemed solid in terms of story. Some bugs diminished the experience, but we didn't encounter anything game-breaking. The last bosses of both ops have been reported to sometimes drop no loot, which my guild experienced first-hand in Temple of Sacrifice. There were also little niggles that made the experience feel a little unpolished, such as being unable to bioanalyse the animal mobs in Ravagers, or Temple of Sacrifice dropping the same decoration item as Ravagers. (Revanites should not have their pockets full of Rishi dancer holograms. Just saying.)

My biggest gripe however is something completely different: the difficulty. Don't get me wrong, my guild managed to clear both ops in the first week, but there were a couple of bosses that gave us considerable difficulties. Sword Squad and the Underlurker in Temple of Sacrifice were probably the worst in terms of requiring both a high damage output as well as flawless coordination.


These are not bad things... for a hardmode. But for story mode, which is meant to be the easy way of seeing the content, easy enough that you can do it in a moderately competent pug, this is an absolute killer. Every pug has "that guy" who stands in red circles all the time... and usually it's okay because even if "that guy" dies, the rest of the group can complete the encounter with a couple of people down. Mechanics such as the Underlurker's "cross", where a single person standing in the wrong spot can pretty much wipe the group, are absolute anathema to pugs. Mark my words, Bioware will have to nerf some of these fights soon. I'm just surprised that this is something that didn't occur to them any earlier. It's pretty much Explosive Conflict all over again. I guess two years are enough time to actually forget about lessons that they should have learned before? Though at least this time around it's only a couple of bosses that are overtuned, not the whole operation.

On a more personal note, I have to admit that I'm also a little worried about the way Bioware seems to be interpreting "challenge" this expansion in general. They seem to have increased everyone's mobility purely so that we can spend more time running out of red circles. I don't mind running out of red circles... but I'm not a twitch gamer, and when an encounter requires me to dodge red circles, blue circles, orange circles and white circles all at the same time, I'm likely to feel stressed rather than challenged. (Hello there, Sword Squad. And again, this is story mode.) At least the hardcore progression guilds should have a good time I guess.

06/12/2014

A Curious Levelling Experience

Yesterday morning I "finally" hit 60. 55 to 60 was a rather curious levelling experience.

 
Before Rise of the Hutt Cartel came out, it had already been talked about that limiting yourself only to the quests on Makeb wasn't going to be enough to make it all the way to 55, so I had been prepared: I "saved up" a whole bunch of completed dailies and did a level 50 flashpoint or two while levelling. In the end I hit 55 with no issues, I believe while doing the weekly mission that follows Makeb's main storyline.

With Shadow of Revan, we had a lot less information about the nitty gritty of how things were going to work in the expansion content, but with two whole new planets I was optimistic that the new quests would take me all the way to 60 - probably foolishly optimistic.

After talking to some guildies who hadn't completed the Forged Alliances arc before 3.0, it seems that the levelling curve is balanced around you doing all those flashpoints in solo mode first and gaining a good one a half levels before you even start on Rishi. Since I had already done all of that however, I ended up hitting a wall at 58, even with full restedness and while having an XP boost active for the entire time.

On Rishi it had seemed like the XP was flowing freely, but the story on Yavin 4 was a lot shorter than I had expected. Bioware had promised beforehand that they were implementing a new system that would allow you to see the culmination of the Revan storyline solo as well as in a group. Story-wise they set this up quite nicely: Once you're ready to assault Revan's forces, you basically get to choose between leading a small strike team yourself (aka do the operation) or "encourage" the troops by doing dailies for them.

Being a happy raider myself, I picked the operation option. Except... I was still level 58 and now seemingly out of quests. I don't know if it's technically possible to enter the new operations at 58, but even if it is, that was hardly going to be ideal. My pet tank encouraged me to reset the quest and switch to the solo option - and low and behold, a whole new bunch of dailies appeared, which allowed me to gain another level. It seems kind of odd to me to initially lock these behind having to make the choice to solo, especially as they do unlock for everyone anyway once you've completed the story.

We also ran one of the new tactical flashpoints as a random, but sadly the XP in there wasn't great. And going back to the 55 hardmodes seemed terribly unappealing, especially as Bioware completely removed all quests from them. I hope that this is just an oversight (as they seem to have converted the old 55 HM weekly into a new 60 HM weekly, without considering that this would leave the 55s with no missions associated with them whatsoever).

After the troops on Yavin 4 have been sufficiently "motivated", you're given a solo mission to face off against Revan himself, aided by the all friendly NPCs that have been at your side throughout the course of story. In an extreme twist of irony, this SOLO mission was launched bugged, and one of the possible workarounds is to form a full group of four (even though only one of you will get credit for the quest) and power through it as a team, which is what me and some of my guildies eventually opted for. To make sure that everyone got credit, we had to repeat the whole thing four times. Oh joy.

Basically the problem is that Revan as a hostile NPC is an absolute beast that spams stuns and knockbacks like nobody's business, so that you rely heavily on the friendly NPCs being alive and taking some of the pressure off you. Satele's constant AoE heal in particular is invaluable when you're actually attempting the fight on your own. If the fight works as intended, that's fine... but all too often it bugs out.

The issue is that there are two points in the fight where Revan is supposed to pull everyone in and then traps all the NPCs while standing in the middle of the area himself, immune to damage and emitting a light AoE damage pulse but not doing anything else, while little power orbs of sorts float about which you can use to free your allies and resume the fight.

 
The thing is, more often than not this mechanic bugs out. If you're lucky, he'll pull everyone in, but not trap anyone and just continue fighting right on. If you're unlucky, he'll trap the NPCs but then continue whacking you, and as you're unable to free the NPCs you die quickly without their assistance.

People have suggested various workarounds on the forums, from taunting at the right time to "doing nothing" for most of the fight, to simply forming a group as we did. I've seen someone theorise that the bug is triggered by dots ticking on Revan right as he's supposed to become immune to damage, so that he immediately goes back to normal fighting.

I'm sure that this bug will be fixed soon, but I can understand why people are pissed off that such a blatant issue that stops the story dead in its tracks made it onto the live servers. For me, it meant that I spent my evening fighting Revan over and over again to get everyone in my group the quest credit without actually making any progress levelling. Fortunately completing the mission unlocked the daily hub in full, so that I could go out and get the last little bit of XP I was missing from more dailies. But it sure was an odd experience.

03/12/2014

Shadow of Revan First Impressions

After a tedious but expected amount of patching, I logged onto my Commando, where a conquest reward awaited me... which immediately granted me some XP. Levelling again, hurrah!

The discipline system immediately prompted me to get my abilities all set up. My first impression was actually kind of underwhelming, but not necessarily in a bad way - if that makes sense. Just clicking "Combat Medic" got all the important bits sorted out, without me having to faff around with individual talent points. (That's a good thing in my eyes!) The utility points all seemed about equality irrelevant to my impending questing experience, so I just picked whatever. I'm sure that once I get back into max-level PvP and group content, the decisions will seem more interesting.

I was a bit bewildered that some abilities had disappeared from my bar even though they hadn't really undergone any significant changes. Having to pay to re-train six ranks of Charged Bolts felt like a pointless money sink more than anything else.

A message in my mailbox reminded me that it was expansion time and explained where I should start the new missions. I kind of miss the times when these messages were written more "in character", but I can only guess that some people found that too confusing? Oh well.

If you haven't done the Forged Alliances story arc, you get directed toward its new solo mode I believe - I don't know yet whether it's mandatory to complete this before you can start questing on Rishi or just recommended. As my main had completed all parts of the story when they were new, she and her pet tank were ready to go to Rishi anyway.

 
They have bird people!

It immediately became apparent that the devs were speaking the truth when they said that they had learned lessons from Makeb and Oricon. Rishi is much smaller and no longer requires you to complete a circuit of a huge area just to complete a single mission, nor do the bonuses involve ridiculous numbers of mob kills like they did on Makeb. So far my pet tank and I have only completed the first sub-zone and the quests have been flowing nicely, while also giving out solid rewards (though nothing that would have rivalled our operations gear of course).

There's definitely a certain "WoW-ification" of the questing process to be noticed, which isn't always a bad thing. For example we had a quest to gather meat from some beasts, but not all of them seemed to drop it - which is when my pet tank noticed that when you hovered over a monster, its tooltip now showed if it was eligible for one of our quests, like it does in WoW.

 
The biggest shock to me though was that Rishi introduces quests that are given out in the form of bog-standard quest text windows. Now, the game has had some of these since launch - but only from terminals or other inanimate objects, like lost datapads. If you actually talked to an NPC, it always launched into a full-fledged, animated conversation. Well, not so on Rishi. I was genuinely taken aback when my pet tank approached an NPC with the tell-tale triangle icon over its head and I waited for the usual green "waiting for all participants to start the conversation" circle to appear, but nothing happened. No, I had to click on the NPC myself, to receive a little text box pop-up with the mission while the NPC just did a little voice-over in the background.

I'm sure some people will rejoice over this - after all the complaints about the voiced side quests supposedly being a drag have been numerous. But I liked them, damn it, and I hate the very idea that progress in a theme park MMO apparently has to mean "regress towards the way WoW works". That said, I will admit that this is a matter of principle more than anything. In practice it's not a big deal for me to pick up a bunch of side quests in text form; after all I've been doing it with dailies for years. If nothing else, this format seems to have allowed Bioware to include more of them at less of a cost, which is good for flavour. Makeb felt oddly devoid of side quests to me sometimes, with the odd daily on some mesas being the exception. On Rishi on the other hand I've only completed the first area so far, but aside from doing the main mission, I've also hunted down several types of wild animals, freed some slaves, retrieved the scattered parts of a broken droid, and unearthed more than one sunken treasure.

I've also done my one new class quest already. I've recorded it and plan to upload it on Youtube, along with all the other new class missions, once I get around to them on my alts. How much is there to the new class missions? Well, like they said, it's "just" one class-specific quest. You pick it up, do some stuff, then hand in - but the story behind it seemed quite meaty to me, at least for the trooper, like they could have actually made more out of it if their resources weren't limited. I might have more to say about the exact implementation once I've seen how it's been done for other classes.

Another thing that caught my attention was that what used to be group phases for the main story mission are now all personal phases, like the ones you get during your class mission. I thought this was a rather odd choice. There was one quest in a phase that transitioned smoothly into the class mission at the end, and in that one case I can understand that it had to be a personal phase - but for all the others it just felt weird to me that my pet tank and I were forced into separate instances (if we wanted to complete the mission simultaneously) just to have a simple conversation or kill a couple of mobs. I'd quite like to know what Bioware's reasoning was behind this change.

02/12/2014

Last Minute Pre-Expansion Thoughts

Shadow of Revan launches today and I'm finally excited, even though it feels like I've been too busy in the past couple of weeks to have much time for happy anticipation.

I don't know how long exploring the new content will keep us busy (if Rise of the Hutt Cartel is any indication, two weeks or so seems like a good guess for me), but just getting to experience an expansion launch again is exciting.

I can't wait to see the new planets and play around with the discipline system and... and what?

The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that we actually know remarkably little about this expansion. Before Rise of the Hutt Cartel came out, Makeb was limited to closed testing as well, but pretty much everything else was available on the public test server. People could insta-level to 55 to play around with the updated talent trees. I ran a level 55 hardmode flashpoint with my guildies. Some of them even tried Scum and Villainy before it went live.

When you compare that to this time around, it feels like we know very little beyond which feature boxes will be ticked in the expansion. In the past week, questions started to pop up in my guild: What kind of gear will you be able to buy with Basic commendations? Will there still be repeatable missions for the level 50 operations, considering that they will go "grey" at 60? Which gear will disappear from vendors? We have no idea.

Even some pretty significant gameplay changes have only been discussed in the vaguest of terms. Dread Palace nightmare was rumoured to offer alternate progression to the new level 60 operations - will it or won't it? Is the new ability to solo certain flashpoints going to be a complete paradigm-changer? What about this supposed new way of being able to experience the end of the Revan story solo as an alternative to doing the operation? I don't know, maybe something has been datamined (that's one source of news that I've somewhat stayed away from for fear of spoilers), but on the whole it feels like we know remarkably little about the details of what's to come.

This could be a good thing - it offers us a chance to experience an increased sense of wonder as we find out about things for the first time - or it could hide some unpleasant surprises. We'll find out very soon.