10/12/2017

A Traitor Among the Chiss - Mechanics

I didn't want to make this post until I had actually cleared the new flashpoint in all difficulties, and since I didn't get around to tackling master mode until this weekend, it took a bit longer than anticipated to get this write-up done. However, it's finally ready now. And boy, was there a lot to talk about on this subject.

It starts before you even enter the flashpoint, with the fourth "one-time story mode" flashpoint difficulty that Bioware introduced with Crisis on Umbara. For Umbara, this was baked directly into the purple-coloured story quest, which could be a bit confusing if you had picked up the story but wanted to try another difficulty mode before completing the storyline, as the game wouldn't let you pick any other difficulty and didn't tell you why. (Officially you were already on another difficulty, but this wasn't obvious.)

While I suspect that this was only a problem for a minority, Bioware decided to try to fix it this time around, by making you pick up the flashpoint quest at the door, independent of the story mission, like we're used to from the older flashpoints. There were two problems with this, however: Firstly, while we're used to the flashpoint quest being a separate thing, most story missions put the solo mode into your log automatically. Since this wasn't the case here, people had to go pick it up themselves... and here the issue was that for some reason, the one-time story mode (required for the mission) was called "solo mode", while the repeatable solo mode was dubbed "story mode". This makes no sense, and as a result many players picked the wrong one and were then confused why their story wouldn't advance. Since the story mission technically tells you correctly to pick up "solo mode" (which is story mode, remember) you could theoretically say that it's people's own fault for not reading the instructions, but I do feel that Bioware is definitely to blame for using very confusing nomenclature here. They should really swap those names around and give you the correct one by default when you actually pick up the storyline.

Okay, so we're finally ready to enter the flashpoint itself. Remember how one of the main draws of splitting the story into a separate solo mode with unique cut scenes was to avoid people accidentally getting spoiled if they end up in the instance early due to running a random flashpoint through the group finder? Why oh why do you then start the cutscene-free, generic difficulty modes with a voice-over that is a giant spoiler for Crisis on Umbara? Someone didn't really think this through.


But enough of all this ranting for now. Loading into the flashpoint for the first time actually took my breath away because of how beautiful it is. So many screenshot opportunities. It also has no fewer than three different bonus missions as well as a couple of hidden achievements, none of which you will complete by just following the straightforward path. In my first run-through on solo mode, I spent over an hour in there and had a really good time sticking my nose into various different corners.

I did notice however that everything took me longer than usual to kill, and there was more damage going round than I had expected. As someone who always runs as a healer, I'm used to killing things slowly, but this was something else. It turns out that I wasn't the only one, and Bioware has already announced that they will reduce both boss health and damage as well as the number of mobs in the flashpoint in the next patch. While I'm glad to be able to say that I got in there and did it all "pre-nerf", I think the move does make sense.  FibroJedi, who has a disability that makes long and intense play sessions painful, came out on Twitter to talk about what a literal pain the flashpoint had been for him, and that's just not right. I've always said that if you intentionally make an easy mode for people to just see the story, then it needs to be easy enough to actually fulfil that purpose. With a return to telling story through flashpoints, you also have to consider that these don't work like KotFE and KotET's chapter format, where you can just pause in the middle. A flashpoint has to be done in one session or it will reset after a while. (That said, since I'm not the kind of player who is the target audience for easy solo modes, I'd still appreciate not being forced into them. /forlornly waves her little "let story advance in groups again" flag)

So what exactly is it that has been deemed to need nerfing and reducing? Well, let's talk about the trash first. My first impression of it was actually quite positive. Many of the trash mobs on Copero, especially in the first section, have distinctive abilities that you are pretty much forced to take notice of, so you can't just round them all up for AoE without a care in the world. That said, this positive first impression wore off once I realised that two of the most prevalent abilities are an instant flash grenade (stun) and an instant-cast shield that makes the mob immune to damage for several seconds. Being instant casts, neither of them can be reliably avoided, but at the same time there is no real consequence to them either other than that they just cause everything to take longer. The flashbang breaks on damage so you're not going to die from being stunned, it just means you stand there for a couple of seconds doing nothing while the mob ignores you. Likewise, the immunity shield just means that you're not able to do damage for a couple of seconds. Where is the fun gameplay in that?

What's also noteworthy is that at least in the first section of the flashpoint (the resort), the mob groups are quite tightly packed, to a degree that we haven't seen in game in a while. Personally I didn't really mind that, but a lot of players did, to the point that Dulfy's recommended strategy for dealing with the trash is to suicide run to the nearest medical droid because dying and reviving further in is deemed to be more efficient than actually fighting things. If you have a stealther in the group, they can avoid the mobs in the first area in their entirety, and if the rest of the group then commits suicide after the stealther has briefly engaged the first boss, they'll immediately respawn right next to them. I tried the latter once and it felt weird. I actually don't mind killing trash all that much in a group - all those silver and gold mobs give pretty decent CXP too. But when you've got characters jumping into the sea instead of actually fighting and it results in faster advancement, something is definitely wrong. We'll see what things are like after Bioware culls the Chiss' numbers on Tuesday.


The first boss, a big droid, is my least favourite of the lot and probably many other people's too, based on the comments I've seen. Part of this is probably that he's currently the most egregious hitpoint sponge in the instance, but we'll see what that's like after the nerf. Even without that though, he's just kind of... boring. Basically he's got two abilities that you need to avoid, and he spawns a lot of adds that take ages to kill. This last part is actually the one thing that's at least somewhat interesting, as the idea seems to be for players to kill adds selectively for a change. The smaller ones without a lot of health are best off killed because they do more damage, but the big "tank droids"  - the clue is in the name - might as well be ignored, as they take ages to kill, do little damage and don't multiply if you ignore them (however, killed ones do get replaced quite quickly). On master mode we just opted to kill one of them to give ourselves a bit of room to move (as you otherwise end up with pretty much the whole room covered in circles to avoid).

I've also seen it suggested to just ignore all the adds, but I reckon that would be a bit painful to heal through and likely lead to disaster in a pug group. I'm not sure how feasible it would be in a veteran mode run with no healer at all. In a group of random people, you're probably better off taking a bit longer and killing more adds just to play it safe.

The second boss is a Chiss sniper whose gimmick is that she moves up and down between two floors and summons a lot of adds (even more on master mode). This was actually the fight that gave my own master mode group the most trouble, as the adds are just all over the place and hit pretty hard. The trick seems to be to control carefully just when and where to kill them, especially near the end, taking out the last group just before the boss hits 25% health and goes into her last ground phase, at which point you try to burn her down quickly. Otherwise you get the little buggers running all over the place and killing people.

Like in Crisis on Umbara, there is a challenging bonus boss that doesn't require a quest chain to unlock, you just need to know where to look. This fight is probably the most intriguing encounter in the whole flashpoint, managing to be interesting simply through a peculiar combination of mechanics. It's a walker that gets plopped down on a narrow platform on the mountainside, buffed by a probe droid that is immune to damage and occasionally reinforced by a small group of soldiers. On solo mode you can pretty much get away with just tunnelling the boss, occasionally taking out adds and avoiding fire. However, on master mode, the walker itself has an unavoidable knockback that can send everyone flying off the platform and the probe droid needs to be stopped from healing and buffing it too much.

The solution to the first is that the tank needs to position himself with his back towards the walkway you used to enter the area, so he only gets knocked onto that, while the rest of the group huddles near a bunch of boxes on the other side so you always bounce off those when the knockback comes. And throughout all of that, people have to cycle through interrupts, stuns and longer-duration crowd controls (though the probe droid refuses to be controlled for longer than 20 seconds at a time) to keep the probe droid locked down. As a healer my job was actually the easiest one, as me helping out with probe droid control was welcome but optional. It was actually pretty damn fascinating to watch our two damage dealers continuously dart back and forth between the boss to do damage and the support droid to cycle through all their interrupts and stuns. I'd imagine it to be quite difficult to achieve this level of co-ordination in a pug though.


Up next we have a sort of second bonus boss, a giant ice cat that you're actually not supposed to fight but simply pass by after pacifying it with a piece of fruit. (Ooh, so clever!) However, if you want to, you can kill it anyway and get an achievement for it. (Poor kitty.) The only thing to really discourage you from doing that is the fact that the cat has an absolutely monstrous amount of health and therefore takes a very, very long time to kill. On master mode it also has a highly deadly, channelled attack that places a stacking dot on the target which will pretty much insta-kill if it isn't interrupted within a second or so. So again, our damage dealers had to rotate their interrupts. There literally is nothing else to the fight, but even one mistake will most likely cause you to wipe. Is that good design? I don't know, but I have to admit the relentlessness of the interrupt requirement gave me fond flashbacks to my prime raiding days in WoW (it made me think of Reliquary of Souls phase two, if that means anything to anyone).

What follows next is a series of puzzles with few trash mobs: having to start a machine to melt an ice wall, navigating a little maze with lasers in it etc. Initially I found this really refreshing, and I still think it's a neat idea, but what makes the whole concept fall down on repetition is that the "puzzles" never change and that there are no consequences to getting them wrong. For example the part you need to start the machine is always hidden behind the leftmost door up on the hill, which is easy to remember so you'll only ever open any wrong doors the first time. And the lasers in the maze do so little damage, even on master mode, that you don't really have to bother with deactivating them but might as well just run through to the end right away.

The final boss is a slightly confusing one. First off, he has a new mechanic that causes him to be invisible to you if you aren't in close proximity during his last phase. (The new operations boss Nahut is based on the same basic idea by the way.) That's good for a little game of hide and seek near the end when he decides to temporarily disengage, but doesn't really add anything else. Aside from that, he once again just has a few things to dodge and at least one attack that you can't really do much about, an instant stun. Somewhat bizarrely, he's probably the easiest boss in the instance.

Also, he has some sort of mechanic that I haven't really figured out yet and haven't really seen any in-depth information about anywhere either. There are some pillars around the courtyard in which you fight him, and if you hide behind one of them when he fires certain abilities, it actually crumbles! I thought maybe he was like Kephess in Terror from Beyond and would take increased damage if you managed to drop the pillar on his head, but I couldn't get that to work. When trying again on master mode today, I noticed that the pillar actually fell apart into a bunch of rocks that the boss then hurled at us! So breaking the pillar actually gives him more ammunition? Even though it's clearly not necessary to beat the encounter, I hate feeling like I'm missing something here. Feel free to share in the comments if you have any more information about this mechanic.


So, after more than two thousand words, what's my verdict on A Traitor Among the Chiss? Yay or nay?

Despite of my initial ranting at the start of this post, it's a definitive yay. I love how much effort clearly went into designing the environment for this flashpoit, and you can tell the designers tried really hard to come up with some creative and new ideas mechanics-wise as well. Unfortunately the tuning for some of them was off, but they were quick to promise fixes for the worst issues. It's just a shame that they couldn't make the trash mobs' abilities actually reward smart play (for example by making the immunity shields an interruptible cast) and give actual replay value to the puzzles.

3 comments :

  1. I remember Reliquary of Souls. 25 people figuring out how to chain/rotate interrupts on the boss was so much complexity back then. Those days trained me to interrupt as much as I could, when I could. I actually like that Swtor had us use more interrupts just when Wow was moving away from it. (Now, Wow is more interrupt *this*, but not _that_.)

    I did try the bonus boss, but gave up bouncing between the boss and the droid. With the boss being such a damage sponge, I just let the boss kill me so that I could move on to the end of the flashpoint. I figure I'll get the achievement some time in the future.

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  2. As a healer-main with a Level 1 Raina this FP took ages. One and a half hour the first time.

    I quickly realized to tunnel the first boss, as taking down the adds took forever.

    The bonus boss was easy, since i was the only one who could interrupt, and i needed Raina's "damage" on the boss.

    I wanted to farm the FP in the second week for some of the new augments. But the FP already had a very bad reputation... out of 13 trys only three groups killed the last boss.

    In 100% of cases at least one group member dropt the FP at the start. More left the group, whenever someone decided to do the bonus, when a stealther was part of our setup.

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    1. I'm not surprised to hear that at all! When I pugged it for my video series, a total of 10 people joined and left before I had a group that made it to the end... based on past experience I'm convinced it will get better with time though. ;)

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