Gods from the Machine So Far

It's hard to believe that it's already been five months since the Gods from the Machine operation opened its doors. My guild actually downed Tyth (the first boss) on veteran mode only three weeks ago. As I wrote in my first impressions of the encounter, many of my guildies weren't particularly enamoured with him, which actually led to us turning our backs on the new operation in short order and going back to working on older boss fights that we still haven't beaten to this day. It was only a little over a month ago that someone said: "You know, we should really give Tyth another try." And after a couple of nights of working on the fight, the God of Rage finally lay defeated at our feet (not counting story mode, which we had of course beaten right on release).

I think one of the major factors that helped our progression was that we eventually deviated somewhat from the strategy laid out by Dulfy's guide. Specifically, the tank swap kept causing us trouble because it wreaked havoc on the add control, so eventually we changed it so that whenever the main tank needed to drop his debuff stacks, he briefly swapped aggro with a dedicated dps instead (the fight's mechanics allow for anyone to get aggro instantly, without the need for a taunt) - this way the off-tank could focus on add control without distractions, so the adds got rounded up much more quickly and calls to AoE them could be made more accurately.

Last night we finally got to try the second encounter, Esne and Aivela, on veteran mode. (I thought the second sister was called Aviela for the longest time... I think that would have made for a much better name.) On story mode, they were mostly a crazy light show without much else happening - the only mechanic you really have to watch out for are the coloured laser beams. But from what I've seen of veteran mode so far, it's pretty much the exact opposite of Tyth. The latter is extremely straightforward from a mechanical perspective, with only very few abilities - the challenge consists of dealing with the adds and the fact that it's largely random what kind of set you get during each wave, forcing you to adapt your tactics on the fly. Esne and Aivela on the other hand enforce an extremely complicated dance, with every person in the ops group having to fulfil different tasks to deal with various adds and abilities, but there are only a couple of points in the fight where you don't know exactly what's going to happen from one moment to the next. While we didn't get them down on the first night, I suspect that this kind of challenge is going to be a little easier for my ops group to tackle than Tyth's. We're just bad at making decisions on the fly.

Either way, I'm quite happy with both of the new boss encounters that we've got so far. I'm kind of hesitant to rate them compared to the older operations, because I suspect that the piecemeal approach to the operation's release has been colouring my judgement. ("Finally a new boss! Gimme!") We'll see how I feel once we have access to the whole thing.

This brings me to my current worry though: When are we going to have access to the full operation? The original plan was to have it finished by the end of the year, but we're now approaching the end of September and only two out of the rumoured five fights are actually live. Seeing the final boss before the end of the year seems increasingly unlikely.

And I'm not mad about "broken promises" or anything, but I'm a little worried. I don't think that Bioware is just bad at planning. I'm worried that Gods from the Machine is underperforming compared to their expectations, which is forcing them to prioritise other things again and slowing down development of the new encounters. I mean, we all know that raiding is a minority pursuit, but so are many things in game, and there's still a difference between developing something for a minority and doing so for a tiny minority.

When I do a search on Youtube for "swtor tyth veteran mode", I currently get 1,720 results, but you don't have to scroll down very far to see the first videos that don't actually match the search term, such as some guild's Eternity Vault run. (Just why, Youtube?) How many raiders are actually left in the game?

Some time ago I had a bit of a discussion with someone, I think it was actually in my own comment section, who posited that making mistakes wasn't such a bad thing for Bioware, because then they get all this good publicity for fixing them, which they wouldn't have gotten if they'd just got it right the first time. I strongly disagreed with this, because from my experience it's rather the opposite: First impressions matter a lot and are likely to get all the big headlines, while fixing things later doesn't get nearly as much attention, and people are less likely to return after having been burnt than if you hadn't scared them off in the first place.

This is what I suspect and fear is happening with Gods from the Machine. Keith really wanted to return that multiplayer feeling to SWTOR, but too many of the people who enjoy this kind of content left over the past two years while Bioware was releasing almost nothing but story updates, and after all this time they have little interest in coming back.

Another thing that speaks in favour of this theory is Tyth's missing master mode. Again, the original plan was for Gods from the Machine to include the return of master modes, with each master mode coming out for the previous boss whenever the next encounter is released. So Tyth's master mode should have come out when Esne and Aivela were released back in July. However, it didn't, and there has been no comment on why or even on whether we might still get to see it later. It probably didn't seem worth the effort, and the fact that there hasn't been much of an outcry from the community about this particular "broken promise" only seems to back that up. Honestly, even as someone who still runs ops every week, I can't claim to be upset by this particular decision. The veteran modes for Tyth and the sisters seem more in line with Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice so far, meaning they are hard enough as it is and don't feel like you could realistically add another difficulty above them that would be played by more than a handful of guilds. However, it's still a little discouraging to see Bioware backpedal on their plans for the new operation quite so quickly.

In conclusion I turn to you, my readers who also run ops: What do you think? If you weren't interested in ops before, I don't see why Gods from the Machine would have suddenly changed that. But if you were a "lapsed" raider for example, has the new operation helped at all to get you interested again? If you have been raiding it, how much time have you spent on fighting the new bosses? I suppose that in terms of pure metrics, even my own guild wouldn't have appeared to be very interested, as we still spend so much time in the old operations.


Pugging with Shintar: Venturing Into Master Modes

I've managed to continue to upload an episode of my pugging video series pretty much every week, despite of being worried at some point that I might not be able to keep it up. I'm kind of amazed by my own ability to maintain a routine sometimes. Too bad it's not really a very highly-valued skill (though handier in everyday life than you might think).

Somehow I've also ended up with one hundred subscribers on YouTube! Thanks, everyone! I hope the fame doesn't go to my head. Anyway, here are the new episodes I uploaded over the last six weeks:

Episode 13: Falling Off Lifts in Cademimu - Long-time readers may know that Cademimu is an old favourite of mine, and I was pleased to get it as my random that day. Following the age-old tradition, someone fell to their death off a lift, including me. You'd think I'd really know better by now.

Episode 14: Confusion, Chaos & Naked Anti-Bob - This episode started with me ending up in Cademimu again because apparently I had failed to unselect it from the group finder menu - still, what were the odds of getting the exact same thing again? Like back in Episode 7, I powered through quickly and then queued again. This time I ended up in Mandalorian Raiders, in a run that included a Commando who wore virtually no gear and needed on everything. Strange times!

Episode 15: Splitting the Party in Legacy of the Rakata & Pugette's First MM! - In a relatively unremarkable Legacy of the Rakata run Pugette reached the milestone of hitting level 50, which allowed her to queue for master mode flashpoints for the first time. I put myself in the queue right away, expecting nothing to happen, but got a pop almost instantly and therefore decided to turn the episode into another double feature. I got into master mode Athiss as my first of its kind, which was fortunately a relative softball, especially as my group consisted of pretty good players.

Episode 16: Trash Skipping Gone Wrong in MM Cademimu - With master modes unlocked in the group finder, I decided to queue for both veteran and master modes simultaneously, fully expecting the veteran mode to pop first... just to get into another master mode run instantly. Back to Cademimu I went once again, though this time in its harder iteration. No deaths from fall damage in this one, though I made a complete fool out of myself on the first boss. The ending was also a good demonstration of how badly (or not at all) communicated trash skipping attempts can go horribly wrong and just end up delaying everything.

Episode 17: Bad Chemistry in MM Assault on Tython - The instant master mode pops continued. This one was off to what I felt was a super awkward start, with the tank asking to be kicked, me causing a wipe by obliviously running into a group of mobs the others had skipped, and a strangely passive-aggressive exchange ensuing between the dps when we got a replacement tank. The run continued fine after that, but my good mood was shot, because that's what this sort of behaviour does to me unfortunately. I also found the last boss quite tough to heal!

Episode 18: Interesting Times in MM Maelstrom Prison - This late-night visit to hardmode Maelstrom Prison ended up being one of my favourite kinds of pugs: We actually did both the bonus missions for maximum XP, people were chill, and while some mistakes were made, they were amusing and/or simply shrugged off, so a good time was had by all (I hope).



When I talk to other players about character appearances, it often seems to me that I care a lot less about what my characters look like than the average player... yet at the same time, also a lot more.

I care less in the sense that I don't really give a fig about whatever's supposed to be the newest, coolest set of gear from the Cartel Market. Most of my characters only own a single outfit, which they've often worn since they were lowbies. And what's that about some detail about the newest hairstyle that you don't like? Eh.

However, I seem to care more than average in the sense that I consider my characters' looks an essential part of their personality and rarely - if ever - change them. I think I can still recall every single time I've ever taken a character to the barber shop to change their appearance after creation (in any MMO) - it hasn't been often.

I also tend to have silly rules for myself, such as that no two characters on the same server are allowed to sport the same hairstyle. Everyone must be unique! I would probably be in trouble if there weren't so many species that have no hair (Twi'lek, Togruta, Rattataki) or whose ladies at least look pretty good with a bald head (Zabrak, Cathar).

Looking at the colours though,  I seem to have a thing for shades of black and red, hmm...

Bioware's lack of skill when it comes to designing appealing hairdos certainly turns this self-imposed limitation into a challenge sometimes. You see this in some of their other games too: lots of hairstyles that give off the impression that the artist doesn't actually know how women like to wear their hair, and which look more as if someone just gave them a list of checkboxes in an attempt to come up with some variety: ponytail, short bob, bun, um... short style with a random braid somewhere?

At launch in particular, I remember people complaining a lot about the lack of long hair options. I could kind of understand why that was a thing though, as long hair would have invited clipping and physics problems. Just look at how much work they put into Twi'lek lekku initially: Even if the result doesn't move like something that's supposed to contain a creature's brain (they tend to behave more like balloon animals really...), it does move...

At some point however, someone up top seemed to say: To hell with worrying about clipping and physics, if people want to buy long hair, let them! So we got "the Barbie", which is sort of the opposite of what they did with lekku... no physics, it clips like crazy and moves about as gracefully in the wind as a hard hat, but who cares? People bought it anyway, and based on how many female characters I see sporting it on the fleet and in screenshots, it's certainly popular.

A Shintar that must never be.

Now their latest coup has been to add some hairstyles that had previously been reserved exclusively for some important NPCs: "the Shae", "the Lana", "the Senya". I kind of wish they didn't continue to go down that road. It's not strictly against my imaginary rules, but it certainly doesn't help with feeling unique when I'm bound to eventually run into an important character that will sport the exact same hairdo as me. Plus I think the Senya bun is just an uglier variation of other buns already in game.

... but of course I still bought them! You never know. I can't keep creating Twi'leks forever and at some point I'm going to run out of available hair options that I find tolerable... unless they add more of course. Which is why new hair bundles will continue to be one of those things that I'll always pick up on day one.


A Knight's Tale

Another milestone achieved: I've finally completed the Jedi knight story for a second time. Only took me five years...

I get excited about these things because while I do love SWTOR's class stories, they are not my first go-to when I'm looking for an evening of easy fun and they require a bit of conscious effort to work on. In addition, I get quite annoyed with myself when I have a character stuck somewhere in the middle of their story, because it makes me feel like I "can't"/shouldn't create another alt of the same class until I've finished the previous one's story. You can guess how peeved I was with myself by this point for taking three years to level up this second knight...

With how long it had been, I do have to admit that there were quite a few details to the story that I'd forgotten about, and it was nice to be reminded of them. I also took so many screenshots. When I levelled my first knight, I hadn't yet succumbed to using third party software to take screenshots to circumvent SWTOR's issues with the Print Screen button, so I had virtually no pictures from my first playthrough. As anyone who's played a Jedi knight knows, there are plenty of pretty epic and screenshot-worthy moments in that story.

All in all though, I still agree with my initial thoughts about the Jedi knight story. Sometimes it feels epic, other times it's so clichéd it hurts. So it remains one of the poorer class stories to me, even though I know many rate it highly or even as the best. One thing I have to say however, after replaying it after all this time and after having seen all the other class stories: It does a better job at dealing with side characters than most. There's a whole bunch of people whom you can kill or get killed relatively early on, who actually make a comeback on Corellia if they are still alive. They don't do anything that affects the outcome of the story, but it's still cool to see them again and hear what effect your actions have had on them. The cast of Jedi that you work with throughout the story is also pretty varied and interesting.

The biggest highlight of the playthrough was actually seeing Lord Scourge again. How could I forget all about him? I once listed him as the one Jedi knight companion that I wouldn't want to lose, but then I took my Guardian into KotFE shortly after it came out and well... obviously I haven't heard from him since, and since I had no other knight at a high enough level to own him as a companion, he just kind of vanished from sight for me. (I had no screenshots of him either.) "Getting him back" on this character made me really happy!

As a bonus, his voice was just as I remembered - shortly after 4.0, I remember grousing about how his new voice lines for when he is set to dps or heal (as opposed to his old default role, tanking) sounded all wrong and as if Bioware had hired a new voice actor for him who sounded nothing like the old one at all. Looking back at it now, the only references I could find about this talk about it being a bug, and that the sound files for several companions had gotten mixed up at the time? Either way, this time around he sounded completely like his old self again, even while healing me, which pleased me to no end.

He also got along a bit better with this Sentinel than with my old Guardian, since I at least attempted to make some dark side decisions on this one. I've said before that I can't really play dark side characters since I dislike being evil just that much, but at least towards the end I got a few dark side decisions in by being all: "My mission is too important for me to hang around and waste time with your petty problems right now!" (Ooh, so edgy!) I even refused to do the side mission near the end where you're supposed to rescue your companion from peril, which was made even easier by the fact that it was Rusk of all people who had gotten in trouble - I thought it was always Doc or Kira! Not that it makes a difference either way, as the situation is resolved quickly afterwards with a comment that one of your other companions filled in to do the rescuing.

One funny side effect of the new dark vs. light system is that you can effectively "cheat" your way towards being a certain alignment regardless of your story choices. (You could do that before if you had diplomacy as one of your crew skills, but it was quite an amount of work in comparison.) So even though I failed at being truly evil, with my supported alignment set to dark the entire time, Satele Shan told me at the end that she could sense the dark side in me. I kind of chuckled when my character responded with: "What have I done?" - because she really hadn't done much that would have been considered dark side.

Not sure what's up next for me in terms of story - I do have a Sage that has been sitting at the start of chapter two for nearly five years as well, but I'm not as fussed about her. But maybe I should go for it, since I seem to be on a bit of a roll?


Happy Grinding!

I've thought for a while that Neverwinter is a perfect secondary MMO to play alongside SWTOR because its strengths lie in exactly the opposite places compared to SWTOR's. Not only does it provide me with a fantasy fix whenever I want one, it's also a great game to grind in. While grinding in MMOs has received a bad reputation over the past few years, I think that it absolutely has its place as a type of content - it just shouldn't be the only thing to do. Sometimes however, my mood is just right for a bit of mindless mob killing or performing other simple in-game tasks without much context that still give me the feeling that I'm progressing my character.

SWTOR has generally been bad at providing this because most content requires attention, whether because there is some sort of story going on or because it's of a difficulty level that requires your full focus (e.g. raiding or PvP). Command XP didn't feel like a good addition at first because it made the mistake of wanting to be the only road to gear in town and on top of that it was painfully slow to get anywhere with it initially. With all the changes and buffs it's received since then, it's in a much better place though, and when Bioware announced that we were going to get a week of double Command XP this week (when I had already taken time off work no less), my ears certainly perked up.

Why would I even grind CXP though? My main's already at rank 300 and in full 248 gear. Well, as I said above, sometimes I actually enjoy a bit of grinding - and with Command ranks advancing at twice the usual rate, I figured that it might actually feel rewarding to work on some alts. Not just for the gear - I read somewhere that dataminers have discovered that achievements for getting all eight classes to Command rank 300 might be coming up at some point. As silly as that sounds, for some reason this is the kind of achievement that really tickles my fancy, and I figured I might as well get a head-start this week.

My third character to hit Command rank 300

On Tuesday I was doing a round of Iokath dailies on my Guardian (before the event had even started) and quickly found myself feeling somewhat confused when after completing only two missions or so, I had already gained two Command levels. It was at this point that I noticed some guildies talking about how most dailies were bugged and giving way more XP than usual - fifteen times more than usual in fact! One of them joked about me being an exploiter now, which didn't really worry me as big part of actual exploiting is doing something that isn't part of normal gameplay... but it certainly felt odd, especially when the double rewards event started soon afterwards and those crazy numbers became even higher. Fortunately CS soon confirmed that nobody had to worry about "exploiting" this bug, and Musco's and Keith's official responses on the forums were examples of unusually good PR management for SWTOR: Basically they confirmed that it was a bug, but they could see why people enjoyed it and didn't consider it game-breaking, so they told people that they should enjoy it while it lasts. Keith even took feedback and noted that dailies were probably due for a CXP boost, even if it shouldn't be quite this much.

So I actually did three daily areas on Tuesday, which is a lot for me as someone who's not a lover of dailies. I had no particular urge to just grind on one character like crazy, but instead saw it as an opportunity to give some love to alts that I usually don't play that much anymore. I was reminded that the alignment-resetting bug in Section X still exists when my Guardian was suddenly demoted from Light V to neutral - good thing she wasn't wearing anything with an alignment requirement. In-between I also queued for a couple of GSF matches, since that was the bonus activity for the day, and got what I think is my highest ever kill count in a match!

(This was on an alt with completely un-upgraded ships by the way, and I still think of myself as a very mediocre if not below average GSF player - but I always do a lot better myself if the rest of my team is strong than if I'm surrounded by people just as bad or even worse than me.)

On Wednesday the featured activity of the day were flashpoints, so I figured I would do some more dailies while waiting for pops, but my Imperial healer alts always got hardmode groups so quickly that they never had time to go anywhere. I actually ran six master mode flashpoints in a row that afternoon - I wouldn't have rated flashpoints as a grindy activity previously since they do require a certain minimum amount of attention, but in actuality it was less than I thought, especially in places like the Black Talon. None of my pugs were awful either, though I was a little sad inside when people insisted on running past the bonus boss in BT even though we were on the right step of the chain and he was right there. Some people just seem to be allergic to doing bonuses in the same way that I'm allergic to skipping them. I was somewhat compensated by tanks who later pushed for the bonus in both Boarding Party and Cademimu, which is somewhat rare from my experience.

In the evening I also queued up on my Marauder, who did get to do some more dailies while waiting in the dps queue. The Czerka Core Meltdown I got into had one of the most heart-breaking pug moments I've ever seen, as after two wipes on the Vrblther (WTB some vowels please; I can't believe I spelled that right) the tank told our Sorc healer that he should probably leave and work on his gear some more and/or get more healing practice before trying hardmodes again. "If that's what you want," the healer said and exited the area - he looked so dejected! It was true though that his gear was pretty poor (not sure if bolster still helps if you're level 70) and he did silly things like spam Force Storm on the adds while people were dying all around him, but I still felt bad for him... I was also surprised because he had managed to successfully heal us through the Duneclaw, and I always considered that one much harder to heal. After he had quit, the tank whipped out his Vette to heal and on the next attempt nobody's health even did as much as dip. Companions, man.

Of course today any plans to continue grinding were foiled by a broken patch that was so bad that Bioware had to take the servers offline again immediately after its drop and haven't been able to bring them back up again at the time of writing this. The current ETA doesn't have them coming back before the end of the evening for us Europeans either, but they've said that they'll consider extending the event to make up for the lost time. Who'd have thought that a day would come where I'd be eager to spend some more time grinding dailies in this game...


Crisis on Umbara - The Story

While my last post took a non-spoilery look at the nature of the new flashpoint, this one is going to be about the story, which means spoiler time! If you haven't played through Umbara yet and don't want to know what happens in advance, you'll want to skip this one. You have been warned.

So... that was quite a twist, huh? Except... I felt nothing, which was a bit of a surprise in itself. I suppose the problem is that I had been kind of spoiled about the identity of the traitor, which greatly diminished the impact of the big revelation of course. I kicked up a bit of a conversation about this on Twitter:
I don't think I follow anyone on there who would deliberately spoil things for others, but several people had made some "totally not spoilers" reaction comments once the identity of the traitor had been datamined, which pretty much gave it away anyway in context. The fact that everyone was "so shocked" meant that it had to be someone unexpected, someone so close to the Outlander that we would have expected them to be above suspicion. The fact that many people were not just surprised but actually upset meant that it had to be a love interest, someone whose betrayal hurt their feelings, which pretty much narrowed it down to Lana or Theron. Finally, it was mostly ladies who seemed to be upset by the new developments... so Theron then, eh? All I could think of when he suddenly pulled his blaster on us on Umbara was: "As I thought, then." I guess there is some advantage to me rarely bothering with the romances in this game; at least it saves me from being upset by stuff like this.

Of course, the problem remains that as a light-side player, the whole development simply doesn't make sense. Some of the things Theron says, such as that he doesn't like what the Alliance has become, are understandable, but his actions are not. Going to such extreme measures in this context just feels totally out of character. But even if you don't agree with this assessment and find his actions believable, it's still galling to be told that you're being betrayed because of the Alliance, considering that you haven't really had a chance to make a difference. Lana and Theron are the whole reason the Alliance even exists; it's an organisation of their making. Scrapping the Eternal Fleet and the Eternal Throne wasn't an option at the end of KotET, though I'm sure many players would have taken it quite happily. So we're being betrayed for story developments that we didn't have a chance to avoid. Bleh.

For a dark side character, the basic betrayal at least has some logic to it. You are quite a tyrant, and Theron not liking that is believable. I've often wondered why Theron and Lana stick with you if you consistently make decisions that they disapprove of. It's just a shame that it only works for about half the player base. That said, this version still manages to include some ridiculousness: As a Force user for example you get the option to Force-choke Theron the moment he betrays you... but then you let him down again for a moment to hear his explanation... and then never do anything again while he walks away. I'm usually not easily annoyed by characters doing something stupid/sub-optimal because people don't always make perfect decisions. However, your character forgetting about their Force powers mere seconds after they last used them was just too weird.

Other than that, there are some more supremely bizarre bits of dialogue in places. My favourite was the former Cipher Nine complaining about how spies like Theron are always scum. Um, what? Remember who's talking here! The message you broadcast to the galaxy at the end had me squirming as well, in both of its iterations. My trooper, who was still seeking reconciliation, was offering Theron a bunch of Eternal Fleet ships to command. I wouldn't expect that kind of thing to interest him, and my character would never even think of making such an offer! Who wrote this stuff? On the dark side, I didn't like my Sith warrior - who has a history of taking her vendettas highly personally - simply offering a bounty on his head. No, I wouldn't want some bounty hunter to kill him, I want to get my revenge myself! Just argh.

Now, the game has always had the occasional moments where your character said things that you didn't really expect/like, mostly because the short paraphrase in the dialogue selection menu didn't really hit the mark and the actual dialogue line came across quite differently. But this is getting out of hand - they are putting way too many words in our characters' mouths and it's getting highly uncomfortable. They need to bring back some more granular dialogue choices - even if they don't have any effect on the outcome! I'd just feel a lot better being given the choice of not saying anything sometimes instead of the weird things that the writers put into the Outlander's mouth in places.

Either way, the big question is where the story is going to go from here. My own first thought was: Hopefully we won't be chasing Theron for the next couple of patches. Yes, his betrayal was very personal, but I'd rather not waste resources on just chasing one guy. He was at his most dangerous while he was sabotaging things from the inside, but now he's just another enemy of the Alliance who's "somewhere out there".

Of course, this is where I saw people suggest that it might all be one giant ruse anyway. Theron has played dangerous games before - wouldn't it make total sense for him to try and infiltrate this mysterious order by faking a betrayal? Of course he wouldn't be able to tell you or it wouldn't be convincing. Double agent Theron Shan! I actually think that would be pretty cool and I was kind of amused by some of the reactions I saw to the suggestion...

Other MMOs: Here are some evil guys. You need to kill them! Don't ask why they are evil though, they just are. Or maybe this one guy was good at first, but then he was corrupted by some evil entity. Yeah.

Bioware: So one of your most trusted advisors finds out about this dangerous secret society that is a threat to you and the galaxy and decides to infiltrate them by faking that he's betraying you, but you don't know that so you really think that your love interest broke your heart! Quite a twist, huh?

Fans: Sigh, what is it with Bioware always going for the most boring and overused clichés...

Only in the Bioware community...

Personally I would be cool with that theory turning out to be true, though at the same time it would be a bit of a shame if I had another "twist" ruined for me simply by being able to guess what it was going to be in this case. Still, at least this direction would make more sense for a light-sided Outlander than Theron actually betraying you for flimsy reasons. For a dark-sided Outlander though, I would love it if the betrayal was real, because it's deserved for them. Maybe Theron wasn't planning to really turn on you but then decided to change sides for real after seeing your reaction. That would certainly return some semblance of choices mattering to this plot.


Crisis on Umbara - Mechanics

Yesterday was a big day: After two days of delays we finally got the patch that 1) continued the storyline from Iokath and 2) blessed us with the first new "proper" flashpoint (not counting the Star Fortresses) in more than two and a half years. As someone who is both into the story and a bit of a flashpoint fan (in case you hadn't noticed from all the posts I've written about them in the past), this was an exciting event indeed.

I'll leave the discussion of the story developments for another post though and start with talking about the flashpoint from a mostly mechanical point of view, without actually touching on the story. So you can read on without worrying about spoilers!

First off, Crisis on Umbara comes with four different settings, because having three of them with sometimes misleading names wasn't confusing enough yet. The new addition is a non-repeatable solo mode which actually advances the storyline, while all the other versions don't.

I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it's a pretty ingenious way of both avoiding "space bar anxiety" during long cut scenes in pug groups and of saving innocent newbies from accidentally spoiling themselves. Only the non-repeatable solo version has the full story - in all the repeatable modes, the cut scenes are heavily trimmed down to the point of not featuring any dialogue, and instead of encountering the actual traitor, you run into a mysterious masked figure that runs away. This means that if you happen to run the flashpoint before actually reaching the point in the story where it is set, it doesn't reveal anything about the plot - and once you do the actual story instance, you'll be in for one hell of a surprise.

Also, I was kind of pleased to see that the non-repeatable solo mode at least - not sure about the repeatable version - opted to simply make the mobs relatively easy to kill instead of saddling you with that blasted Jesus droid and having you face off against hitpoint sponges. One of my biggest criticisms of past solo modes has been that letting the droid (slowly) do all the work for you simply isn't very fun.

What are the downsides? Well, for me personally the fact that the actual story-advancing version of the flashpoint is another solo instance is a bit of a bummer. I understand the necessity since it looks like your choices might affect future events once again, but the original announcement of the story continuing in a flashpoint had given me hope that I might actually be able to play through it with my pet tank. No such luck, at least not on the first run. My wait for the return of actual story content that can be done in a group continues.

Finally there's simply the fact that having yet another "version" of the flashpoint is just confusing, good intentions or not. Just the other day I ran into a guy on reddit who was confused and frustrated by being unable to solo Hammer Station, as he thought it was basically just another bit of story. And in fairness, it's not like terms like "veteran mode" really tell the uninitiated that this requires a group... I'm starting to fear that all MMOs are inevitably doomed to become more and more confusing with age, but that doesn't mean that we actively have to try to add to this confusion. The bottom line is that I'm undecided on whether this "four modes" setup is a good thing or not.

On to the flashpoint itself: As I said I won't talk about the story, but I will use some vague terms to talk about things like bosses and environments. The reactions to Umbara's looks that I've seen so far have been a bit subdued, with people citing the differences in the way the planet looks compared to in the Clone Wars series as the main reason for their discontent. Without this frame of reference, I simply found it gorgeous. I love how strange and alien it looks with its dark skies and alien glowy tentacles growing out of the ground. It's unlike anything else we've seen in SWTOR so far, and the closest zone it reminds me of is actually World of Warcraft's Zangarmarsh, though that's a lot wetter. The flashpoint also features several new mob skins (not completely new models, but I guess that would be asking a bit much), which had me quite excited.

I was also pleased that it really felt like a "proper" flashpoint, even if it's relatively short. Maybe I'll make that the subject of another post some time: What actually defines a good flashpoint? I just know that this one had all the ingredients: story progression, traversing of different environments, as well as all kinds of little bits and pieces that you can take or leave but which make the whole thing more engaging. For example in the first part there are some traps on the floor that spawn additional turrets, and there is an item you can pick up to disable said traps. I completely missed this on my first playthrough and simply tried to walk around them. However, there is also an achievement for actually triggering X amount of traps and simply killing the turrets. Your choice.

A bit further in, there are some neutral mobs which won't attack you out of their own volition, but again, there is an achievement to go out of your way and kill them anyway. I even found some flowers growing on the ground, a first for any flashpoint - if there are actual archaeology nodes too (I haven't had a chance to check yet), I'll take that as evidence that someone at Bioware totally does read my blog. There is also a bonus boss that is cunningly hidden in a corner, with no mission pointing the way towards it - in fact, I managed to completely miss it during my first solo playthrough.

Now, what sorts of obstacles does Umbara force you to overcome? Well, first there's that train that has been the big advertising point from the start. This part of the flashpoint made me think that the designers must have been inspired by "The Last Train to Cairo" from Secret World, which I got to play recently and which is a very fun mission that - surprise, surprise - has you boarding a train and fighting your way to the front both by running along on top of train cars and by smashing through them and fighting baddies. Admittedly the Umbara Express feels like a pale imitation in comparison, but the train also isn't quite as vital to the flashpoint as we were initially led to believe, and a good chunk of it actually has you back on the ground.

The actual boss encounters were all reasonably interesting and challenging. Well, on veteran mode we smashed through them without any real difficulty, but that's to be expected with an overgeared guild group. I'll have to run it in a low-level pug soon just to see what that's like! On master mode things hit pretty hard though, which definitely goes some way towards explaining why they wanted the minimum gear requirement for group finder groups. The second boss (third if you count the bonus boss) in particular hit like a truck, especially once he hit his enrage at about 15%. We were mostly fine before that, but at that point he always quickly wrecked the group and we had two literal 1% wipes before finally defeating him, and even that kill didn't go down without deaths on our team.

The final boss is similarly tricky but in a slightly different way, as his "enrage" consists of faster and faster add spawns that quickly overwhelm you. Again it took us several tries to get him down, and even then our group was wiped out by the adds afterwards. This led to the meanest encounter of the flashpoint of course - a bug which caused us to get released back at the start, with no way to get back to the boss's corpse. I bet there was a rare decoration or something among all the loot we missed out on. Hopefully Bioware will fix that soon.

As first gameplay impressions go, Crisis on Umbara has managed to make a good one. Of course I will likely run it many, many more times over the coming weeks and months, and we'll see whether that positivity will last or whether unexpected annoyances will rear their head after sufficient repetition. For now though, I'm one happy flashpoint lover.


Finding Challenge While Levelling

After I finished replaying the Imperial agent story the other week, I made it my next levelling goal to finally finish my second playthrough of the Jedi knight story. The poor Sentinel I've been using for this purpose has been picked up and dropped again more often than a bouncy ball - originally created in May 2014, she only hit level 40 the other week. However, I think she might finally be getting somewhere, having finished her class story on Belsavis yesterday.

An interesting side effect of the haphazard way in which I've played her in the past is that she's only just high enough level for her class story and by this point actually slightly under-levelled. And boy, does this ever make for an interesting experience. I previously touched on this when I spoke about levelling my Sniper for the DvL event last year purely through the class story, but I thought at this point it probably deserved a post of its own.

I'm generally in favour of the level sync introduced in 4.0, but I was not a fan of how much easier the levelling game became at the same time, and I've been unwilling to blame that purely on level sync alone. Surely Bioware also must have reduced all the mobs' hitpoints at the same time or something? Honestly, at this point I'm not so sure anymore, because not being synced is such a different experience it's almost unreal.

Above anything else, gear actually matters. I don't know how the algorithm behind it works, but purely based on experience I'm confident in saying that levels trump gear any time. If you are over-levelled and being synced down, it doesn't matter if you're still wearing the greens from the starter planet, you'll be noticeably more powerful than your opponents. But if you're actually the same level... oh wow.

My Sentinel is wearing some very old weapons in specific, and it's amazing how long it takes me to kill anything. And I'm loving it! It's even more noticeable than it was with my Sniper, because with that one I ran with my companion as dps, so even if my own damage was low, my companion was still killing things reasonably quickly. My Sentinel on the other hand has her companion usually set to heals, so while she's pretty much never in danger of dying, combat is a much slower affair. You may be wondering how exactly this is supposed to be a good thing - well, let me count the ways:

With weak mobs not automatically dying in one or two hits, even they can be interesting to fight. If I get a crit that does kill the mob outright, it feels exciting. If I use one of those abilities that stuns weak mobs on top of doing damage, I actually notice it and it makes a difference.

Silvers actually have enough health for me to practise my rotation. And I don't mean that in a "high-end-raider practising on a target dummy" kind of way, though I suppose you could do that too. I actually have no idea what the optimal rotation for my class and spec is supposed to be, but I'm at least learning a little. Because abilities come off cooldown several times during a single battle, I notice how they can be woven together in different ways, and I'm reminded that hey, I should remember to use that one more often because it gives me a noticeable damage boost. It's fun and engaging. Gold mobs take it up another notch and almost feel like mini boss battles, which is how I remember them from the early game.

I also get to practise different strategies on different mob groups. For example when I encounter a silver and several weak mobs together, it makes sense to kill the weak ones first, right? Except... since I'm playing a dot spread spec, I sometimes focus on the silver instead and then hope that the weak mobs will die from the spread damage in the meantime. It doesn't always work, but it's fun to try.

I suppose if you didn't have your companion set to heal, there would also be a more serious risk of dying. The only time I've died recently was when I accidentally drove right into the middle of an Imperial base and got mowed down by the defense turrets. But I did come close another time when I accidentally sent my active companion off on a crew skill task and suddenly found myself in combat with an Ackley and another mob with no companion by my side. I scrambled for my cooldowns and to quickly find a medpack in my bag (I'm so used to not needing them that I hadn't even put one on my bar) but just about made it through. It felt quite exhilarating.

It does make me a little sad to think that this side of the game is unlikely to be seen by many players these days because it's just so easy to over-level content. The only reason my Sentinel is where she is is because I've done almost nothing but the class story on her since 4.0, plus a couple of PvP matches here or there. My Sniper managed to stay on track by doing only her class story plus full map exploration on every planet. If you did the planetary story arcs on top of that, or even a flashpoint or two, you'd already be likely to overshoot your target again.

It shouldn't be this hard to find a bit of challenge while levelling a new character. I don't mind that people can have it easy, but it would be nice if the experience was a bit more granular, with level sync and overpowered companions not being quite so overbearing by default. I mean, the levelling experience I'm describing in this post isn't even "hard"; as I said I'm rarely in danger of dying. But it gives me a chance to actually take in the mobs around me and what my abilities do to them, instead of just blindly AoE-ing my way through multi-mob packs and killing the large opponents in a few hits.


Iokath Story Thoughts

Back in April my first impression of the Iokath storyline was that it was "okay": It had some good pieces of dialogue, but felt lacklustre overall. When I finally replayed it this past weekend, the latter aspect stood out to me much more this time, and I wanted to write down some thoughts on it. In case you couldn't guess: that means that this post will contain spoilers for Iokath.

The thing I already criticised back in April was that the whole "superweapon" shtick doesn't make much sense because absolutely nothing seems to be known about it. I could understand the factions chasing after something they knew to be powerful, but it doesn't make sense that they all charged in full force based on nothing more than an anonymous tip-off that there was a superweapon of some sort, oh, right over there, somewhere. It's not like vague, anonymous tip-offs are ever wrong or even a setup for a trap, right?

I'm also not convinced the connection to the operation was done in the best possible way. Personally I don't mind story tie-ins, and I've had comments on this blog from people who described having experienced them as positive in the past, e.g. because the Oricon quest to do Dread Fortress introduced them to raiding and they actually found it quite fun. But the way it was done here just felt kind of lacklustre - after all the fuss about superweapons, are the gods from the machine important now or not? Pretty much the moment Iokath was released I saw people freak out on Twitter about stupid Bioware "forcing" them to raid in order to see the story, but there is no story in there right now. The mission from the Scions just tells you to enter the operation, and that's it. You kill some bosses and leave again. Maybe it will make more sense once the whole thing has been released. But if there is supposed to be some sort of story thread to the operation as well, then the piecemeal release of the bosses certainly hasn't helped it.

However, my biggest issue with Iokath is the treatment of Malcolm and Acina. Here we finally have a reason to split the story into two different versions for the Republic and the Empire again... and they play out pretty much identical regardless of which faction you side with. We've come a long way (and not in a good direction) since Shadow of Revan, when Bioware first unified the story for both factions but at least still tried to mix things up by making the cut scenes and dialogue for each one play out slightly differently. Worse, two strong and important NPCs are killed off without much fanfare (well, one of them is, depending on your choice) - it's like Darth Malgus all over again.

Despite of my strong affiliation with the Republic, Jace Malcolm is the one whose (potential) death I'm less hung up about. We never really got to know him very well in game, so it just feels like a bit of a waste, but at the same time his actions don't exactly feel "wrong" because we didn't have enough points of comparison for how he should be acting. And while his loss must surely be a blow to the Republic, at the end of the day he's "just" a soldier and will be replaced.

Now, Darth Acina on the other hand... I feel the story just did her a grave injustice here. The whole Outlander arc made it pretty clear that she managed to survive and even seize power when so many other Sith died or scattered due to being a cautious opportunist who was able to swallow her pride when needed. The whole of KotET chapter two is about how she stands for a slightly different (more humble and quiet) kind of Sith, and while out in the jungle she talks about how she never really gets to go out and into the thick of things because she has to stay behind and steer things from the safety of the shadows.

So why in the world does she have to go to Iokath personally when she already has capable people on the ground and doing the work for her? Why does she have to spearhead the crucial attack herself and risk her life by linking up with a piece of dangerous alien technology? I suppose you can't rule out that she had a sudden lapse of judgement, but it just feels so out of character. And of course what's supposed to happen if the Empress of the Sith is suddenly dead? You can't tell me that the power vacuum created by such an event isn't going to change the way the Sith Empire is run going forward.

There is a certain irony here: People have often complained that the choices we get to make in the story don't feel meaningful, but here we have one that should by all means be extremely meaningful... but it's made in such an off-hand way that it's pretty impossible to imagine Bioware having fully accounted for believable consequences.

All in all, I'm left with a lot of uncertainty about how the story is going to continue going forward. I was initially really hyped about the idea of getting to return to the Republic/Empire conflict, because to me that's part of what Star Wars is all about - I never felt as attached to Zakuul and the Alliance. But the current setup doesn't give me anything to look forward to. At least on Iokath, Republic and Empire continue to be treated as playing second fiddle to the Alliance, and are portrayed as uninteresting and same-y. Where's the fun in that?

I suppose the Alliance will remain the main issue going forward. If it was up to me, I'd be happy for it to be disbanded, with my characters just returning to their old factions and helping them rebuild. But I realise that many players feel differently and this direction would be a very hard sell for them. After being commander of a whole faction, why would you just give that up? And you can bet that if Bioware makes us somehow lose the Alliance, enforcing a story direction that causes it to fall apart, there will be hell to pay. It kinda feels like they've manoeuvred themselves into a corner, and I'm curious how they will try to get out of it, but also worried that it will be unpleasant in some way.

What do you think?

[Recently there have been story spoilers for upcoming updates going around that were found by dataminers. If you know any of these and they somehow relate to what I discussed in this post, I would kindly ask you to refrain from posting them in the comments as I have so far managed to successfully avoid them.]


700 Posts!

Once again I get to celebrate the milestone of having written another 100 posts on this blog, bringing the total up to 700! The tradition on this sort of occasion has been to look at Google Analytics and to pick out any funny and/or interesting search terms that led people to the blog since the previous celebration. Unfortunately, as I already mentioned last time, GA is willing to divulge fewer and fewer of the search terms that led people to the site, and at this point I'm up to literally more than 99% of them showing up as "not set" or "not provided", which unfortunately doesn't leave me with enough material for an entertaining post.

I will have to think of a good long-term replacement for this, but for the time being I'll simply take a page out of Calphy's book, who incidentally celebrated his own blog's third birthday the other day and used it as an opportunity to look back at what have been his most-viewed posts in terms of numbers. I've never done that before, so why not? Here they are, according to Blogger:

1. How to Successfully LFG in SWTOR (2014) - 9107 views

I don't often write guides, and not just because I rarely feel an urge to do so, but also because most of the time, by the time the question of whether to share my knowledge about something might even come up for me, there are usually already plenty of good guides on the subject out there. How many guides to "how to get all the Tatooine datacrons" do we need anyway?

But every now and then, something will pop up and cause me to frown when I realise that it obviously confuses a lot of people but for some reason nobody has bothered to explain it properly yet. How to find groups in SWTOR is one of those things - it's not something I've ever struggled with myself, but it was in fact while going through my Google search terms for one of these celebratory posts that I noticed that quite a lot of them were about "how to lfg" or variations thereof.

Some of the information in that post is still useful today, but other bits are quite outdated, which is why I felt the need to release a version updated for 2017 last month.

2. How to use SWTOR's LFG system and /who (2012) - 7909 views

This was a sort of predecessor to the above post, in which I felt the need to address the people who were complaining about having trouble finding groups shortly after SWTOR's launch (before it had an automated group finder) by basically explaining to them how to put a group together the old-fashioned way. I sincerely hope that the high view count for this post is a result of the game's popularity at launch and that people aren't still finding my instructions on how to use /who in 2017.

3. "Should I play SWTOR?" A review after ten months. (2012) - 5025 views

I can see why this one got a lot of views, because the question of what an MMO is like after the launch hype has died down is always interesting to people but only becomes more and more difficult to answer over time as fewer and fewer sites talk about the game from the point of view of a new player who knows nothing about it.

It's kind of funny to me that most of that review still holds true nearly five years later. Except for the bit about there being no "fluff". There's plenty of that in the cash shop in particular, and there are many players nowadays who love to focus on collecting stuff and playing Space Barbie.

4. Bioware Answers Some Questions About Flashpoints: An Interview With Michael Backus (2016) - 4579 views

This was the only thing I've done so far which I would qualify as something a "proper" fan site would do, as in actually engage with the devs and try to increase communication between them and the community. When I finally had the interview ready to post after literally months of pestering Musco about it (bless him), I was super proud and promoted the heck out of it, linking it on reddit, the official forums and anywhere else I could think of. I'd be bloody disappointed if it wasn't on this list!

5. The Art of Achieving Map Completion (2014) - 4231 views

This is another guide that wasn't even really meant to be a guide but kind of turned into one while I relayed my experiences about working on the Galactic Explorer achievement. I can see why there probably aren't many other guides on the subject because it's a bit difficult to write a guide for... where do you even start? Everyone will be missing different parts of the map! I compromised by giving a general explanation of how to best find out where you need to go if you are puzzled by which part of the map you're still missing and by providing more detailed instructions for a couple of zones that had initially stumped me.

6. YouTube Link Love (2012) - 4181 views

I'm honestly not sure why this one is on this list. I mean, yes, it provided links to a couple of SWTOR videos at a time when SWTOR content on YouTube was still relatively sparse, but none of them were even that great. The post never received a single comment either! I think it's something about the post title that must have attracted generic searches about YouTube at some point.

7. Solo Flashpoints - Good or Bad Idea? (2015) - 3798 views

I'm honestly not sure why this opinion piece is on this list, as I don't consider it one of my best and I didn't even come to any real conclusion in it either, though I suppose the question of what differentiates flashpoints from other repeatable quests when you can do them both in a group or solo remains a pertinent one. I suspect that more than a few people might have ended up finding this post when solo modes for flashpoints were first introduced, trying to find out more about how they work and which flashpoints even have them. Sorry, this post doesn't tell you that.

8. The Group Content I Miss The Most (2016) - 3403 views

The reason this opinion piece has so many views is because I actually went and linked it on reddit myself. I'm not exactly sure what brought on this madness at the time, considering that the SWTOR subreddit can be quite harsh on fan content creators, but I was lucky and this post was fairly well-received. I also still stand by everything I said in it. Where is the amazing storytelling experience you used to provide for groups, Bioware? *insert hurt and accusing glare here*

9. The Best Classes to Take into KotFE / KotET (2017) - 2730 views

This post from earlier this year was a bit of a surprise hit, mostly because someone else decided to link it on reddit. I think some people may also be finding it through Google though, as the question of what class is best to jump into the new story is certainly interesting for players returning from a long absence or those who might be considering jumping into the game for the first time while making use of a high-level character token. Some redditors disagreed quite strongly with my low ranking of the Imperial agent, but I stand by that so far. Commenter Sullas was totally right that I should have made the Sith inquisitor number one though!

10. The Missing Companions (2016) - 2726 views

This post from last year was another surprise hit of sorts, as it's neither a guide nor does it provide any particularly deep insights. I don't think it ever got attention from being linked anywhere either. It's just evident that a lot of people care about the companions that have disappeared in KotFE and want to know when they'll be back. Some players who may have been away from the game for a while may even make their return dependent on whether their favourite companion is already back or not, but how are they to know other than from other people telling them? These are the sorts of burning questions that lead people to this post I guess, and unfortunately it only has limited answers.

If you've read all of these before, I can only congratulate and thank you for being such a loyal and dedicated reader! If not, maybe you've found one or two interesting reads for the evening. Onwards to the next 100!