On Thana Vesh

I've been playing my Imperial agent again over the last couple of days, a character that has been languishing in her mid-thirties for a while now. It's an interesting side effect of the heavy focus on story that while it can really grip you and make you want to keep playing until the early hours of the morning, if you do end up putting a character aside for a while for whatever reason (such as getting distracted by playing your main a lot /cough), it can be quite hard to get back into it. While the loading screen gives you a brief summary of where you last left your class story, you also have to remember things such as that your first companion wanted you to go to another planet, you were trying to romance your second companion, the main planet storyline you were working on was about that crazy Sith, and those other quests were about... I got nothing.

Anyway, I'm hoping that I'll be able to remain focused enough to at least finish Act II of my agent's story in short order, as it's really interesting, and getting access to the crit buff on all of my characters would be a nice bonus. The other night I got to the point where I got my third companion and it was quite a WTF moment considering what he turned out to be. But I shall say no more.

Anyway, I didn't actually want to talk about the agent story in this post, but about the main storyline for Imperial side Taris, which I finished last night. There'll be heavy spoilers, so continue reading at your own risk.

Basically a powerful Sith Lord forces you to work on driving the Republic off Taris, together with a Sith warrior called Thana Vesh, presumably because he enjoys tormenting people at every opportunity. Thana displays all the worst attributes of a Sith: she's aggressive, arrogant, impatient and only moderately competent. Every time you're given a new task, she goes on and on about how the player character is useless, and how she will do it all on her own anyway, with the occasional death threat sprinkled on top. Then when you get to where you're meant to be, she's either slow to the party, or she's already there but has got herself into trouble somehow.

As I quietly seethed at her being a nuisance yet again, I couldn't help getting a bit meta (it's an unfortunate side effect of being a blogger for a while I think). Where was Bioware going with this story? Clearly Thana was being set up as a character that you couldn't help but loathe. To what end? Probably so that you can give her a satisfying beat-down at the very end, when she inevitably takes things that one step too far. Yes, that had to be it. I was looking forward to it.

When we got to the final step of the mission, blowing up the Republic spaceport, I started to become a bit paranoid. Surely something was going to happen with Thana any moment now. She was going to turn on me so that she could get all the glory and so that I couldn't tell anyone about how badly she continued to fail at everything. Any moment now.

But no, we just kept on ploughing ahead, through Jedi and other Republic soldiers, and while Thana continued to be annoying, she also seemed very focused on the mission. When it came to making a light/dark side choice, she actually allowed me to have the final call, much to my surprise. And then... that was it. She threw one last insult at me and told me to scram, but nothing more. And I was presented with the option of simply saying bye or killing her by shooting her in the back.

The strange thing was that I couldn't do it. All this time I had wanted to kick her behind, maybe even kill her, but not like this. She should have earned it, by threatening me one more time or even attacking. But just quietly shooting her in the back when she didn't even perceive me as a threat? That wasn't like my agent at all, so I chose to just say goodbye.

It left me really thoughtful though. Clearly I had underestimated Bioware's storytelling in this case, expecting Thana to just be a foil that turns on you eventually. However, she wasn't just mindlessly aggressive after all. For all her threats, she seemed to have no particular urge to kill a powerful ally. I suppose she just has a really bad inferiority complex for which she's overcompensating by being a loud-mouth? Interesting...

Curious whether other people had been thrown for a loop by this development too, I decided to put "swtor thana vesh" into Google. Yep, "kill or not" was one of the first suggestions it made. However, the others just baffled me: "thana vesh companion"? Flirt? Romance? Yegads! Indeed, the first result is a thread on the official forums where people talk about how much they love her and how they wish she was available as a companion. I guess some people would love to romance anything and anyone... or maybe Bioware is just good at making characters that can evoke a wide range of emotions from players.


Day 4: Missions & Conversations

This is the fourth post in my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots challenge. Click on any screenshot to see a larger version.

In hindsight I'm not so sure whether this was the best subject to pick for one of my ten days. Looking at my screenshot folder, I was reminded that many of the little cut scenes that I enjoyed the most didn't actually result in any screenshots simply because print screen refused to work, or I was so engrossed in the game that I didn't remember to press the button in time. Still, there is something.

This isn't a very good quality screenshot - part of the UI is visible, it's very dark, and I didn't actually catch exactly the moment I wanted, but it's still a very good representation of what I love about the little cut scenes in the game. It's from the quest Fall of the Locust, which is a Republic side heroic on Taris that is more story-heavy than most heroics. It had already gone grey by the time I did it on my Jedi knight, but I volunteered to help out two other people that were looking for a group simply because I remembered enjoying this quest very much on my Sage. In fact, my high level ended up being a good thing because we couldn't find a healer at the time, so it was handy to have a tank who took virtually no damage.

Anyway, I love this little scene because it has the entire party slowly drawing their weapons at the same time as they encounter a threat, and it really drives home the feeling that you're this strike team that's on a dangerous mission together. Even if I never see that fat bearded Jedi and the dodgy smuggler again, we had something memorable going on when we rescued that twi'lek agent and then proceeded to take care of a dangerous pirate together.

And for something slightly different, my first Imperial side screenshot on this blog! This was when my boyfriend and I unsuccessfully tried to duo the Foundry. We didn't make it past this guy, but I was very impressed with the light show. More enemies should have giant holographic presentations of themselves give illustrated speeches about their devious plans.


Why I Love Legacy Names

My low-level Jedi knight is standing next to a GTN terminal when she's approached by a level 50 Shadow. I'm pretty sure that we've never met before. He sends me a group invite and I accept.

"Hey, what's up?" I ask.
"Hi Shintar," he replies (even though that's not my knight's name). "Nothing really, I just wanted to add you to my friends list and clicked the wrong button. Oops, hehe."
I look at him and smile. "No worries."

While our characters had never met before, he clearly recognised my legacy name and it reminded him of that nice Commando healer that he sometimes sees in warzones. (Or well, at least I hope that's what he was thinking!) One look at his legacy name in turn immediately revealed the Shadow as an alt of a Jedi guardian who kindly puts his guard on me in PvP every so often.

I really like how legacy names allow you to connect to the person behind the character without necessarily revealing all their alts to you or broadcasting every time they log in on any character. It just feels very natural to me, imitating the way in which you would recognise a familiar face in real life if you happened to run across that person. "Hey, I think I know you!"

At the same time it's completely optional, so if you want to keep any or all of your alts separate from your other characters, you can do so and nobody will be any wiser about them belonging to the same person. (Unless you follow some other kind of very obvious naming convention. Or you tell people.) Personally I'm proud to display my legacy name on all of my characters though - and every time someone recognises me (or I recognise them) it gives me a little tingle.


1.3 Hopes And Fears

While we don't know a release date yet, we have a solid preview of 1.3 now, at least in terms of what new content and features it will introduce. I think that some of it looks quite exciting, especially the sneak peek at the ability to sit on chairs (and I'm only half joking about that).


I have to admit that from what we know so far, I also have reservations about some of the promised patch features, in the sense that they carry the potential to actually make the game less fun for me. I can't help feeling a little worried about that.

First there is the introduction of the group finder. I know that many people are looking forward to this, but personally I've been dreading it for a while. I want a better group finding tool, yes, but I don't want a carbon copy of WoW's dungeon finder. However, based on what they show in that preview video and what Damion Schubert said in the official podcast, it sounds like this is pretty much exactly what we'll get, including a (to me very redundant) teleport function (never mind that most flashpoint entrances are right there on the fleet already) and extra currency rewards for doing randoms.

Fear: I'm not going to rehash all the details of my argument for the umpteenth time, but I believe that in the long run the dungeon finder was one of the main things that killed WoW for me. (It wasn't the only factor, but a major one.) It had a very noticeable negative effect on the community as I experienced it, and turned dungeon running from one of my favourite activities into a dull daily grind. I'm enjoying The Old Republic as it is, please don't break this MMO for me too!

Hope: I suppose the fact that they are keeping it same-server is a small silver lining, but I've never been a follower of the school of thought that cross-server grouping is the root of all evil and that if only WoW's dungeon finder was same-server, it would all be sunshine and roses. However, I'm willing to cling to anything that gives me hope that things in SWTOR will be different.

Fear: Because the group finder won't be cross-server, it will have longer queues and the people who felt that talking to other players to get a group was too much effort will most likely feel that anything but instant satisfaction is still too much effort. Massive whining will ensue on the official forums and various news sites about how pointless the new feature is, how come Bioware wasted any development time on it etc. I think this one is pretty unavoidable actually.

Then we have all the talk about character transfers. Now, for me, server transfers are basically value-neutral, as I've never used such a feature and currently have no plans to ever do so either. It doesn't do anything for me, but it doesn't harm my experience either, right? In fact...

Hope: I've acknowledged that Luka Sene seems to have a lowish population and could probably use some more players. Once server transfers go live, if even just a few players transferred over to us, this could potentially be very good for the server.

Except... unless I've missed a major announcement somewhere, Bioware has been incredibly vague about how exactly server transfers are supposed to fix any current population imbalances. You would assume that they'd offer free transfers from some of the highly populated servers to the more quiet ones, but from what I've seen so far they haven't actually said anything like that anywhere. Instead they keep talking about "allowing people to play with their friends", which sounds to me like they'll transfer anyone to wherever they want to be (free or at a cost, haven't heard anything about that yet either).

That would certainly work on a personal level, but what would that kind of policy do to populations? I would expect people to seek out the busy servers if given a choice, not the quiet ones.

Fear: Once character transfers go live, people will converge onto a handful of high pop servers even more so than they do now, leaving servers that are currently low pop but functional as complete ghost towns (probably including mine).

People inevitably end up talking about server merges, but once again that's not something that I've actually heard Bioware themselves mention anywhere. It seems that everyone just wants to assume that the next patch will solve whatever problems they currently have with the game (which is at least an optimistic attitude to take I suppose) without actually looking at the details of what we're getting.

And then... we have "adaptive gear", meaning that all the social gear that's currently classified as light armour will scale up so that medium and heavy armour users can use it in everyday play as well without completely gimping themselves.

Fear: Everyone will be tanking in bikinis all the time, whether I want to see their girly bits hanging out or not. Yegads!

Okay, so that last one doesn't really have me worried. But I still can't help looking forward to 1.3 with a mix of both anticipation and trepidation.


PvP Ponderings

I realised that I write very little about PvP on here, which is strange considering that I spend quite a bit of time playing warzones each week. I suppose that my silence mostly stems from the fact that I still consider myself a PvE player first and foremost, regardless of what I'm actually doing in my game of choice at the time, so PvE is the content that I really think about. In WoW this became slightly strange when towards the end of my time with the game, I stopped doing PvE content altogether and only logged on to do rated battlegrounds. I do think that was a clear sign that I wasn't really enjoying the game anymore - PvP can only ever be a PvE supplement for me, never a substitute.

That said, I think one of the main reasons I spend as much time doing warzones as I do is that they fill an important "time slot" in SWTOR, by offering an activity that you can do for as little as half an hour and still feel like you accomplished something. In comparison, you don't really want to plan on less than an hour for a flashpoint unless you've got an experienced team that you can rely on to clear that particular content quickly, and while questing can theoretically be done in pretty small chunks, it only really feels satisfying in my opinion if you can take your time with it (to listen to all the conversations and follow the story). If you're not sure how much time you'll be able to spend playing, hopping into a warzone or two is the ideal solution (provided the queues allow it).

I don't remember where exactly I read it, but I remember Bioware commenting somewhere that they themselves were surprised by just how enthusiastic SWTOR players were about PvP, considering that it's not the main focus of the game. I'm guessing that many players are in the same boat as me and enjoy it as their bite-sized bit of fun between doing larger pieces of content. Not to mention that The Old Republic's warzones are simply extremely fun.

Thinking about it, it occurred to me the other day that PvP is probably the part of SWTOR that has seen some of the most drastic changes since the game's release. First there was all the drama surrounding Ilum, which I completely missed in game since I wasn't even fifty yet at the time. (I still haven't even been to the PvP area on Ilum, since it has now become pretty much irrelevant.) Then there were various tweaks to the rate at which you acquired PvP commendations, and 1.2 finally changed the gear progression system from the ground up. This actually did affect me, though not as badly as I had initially feared.

Basically, I was close to completing my Champion gear set and Valor rank 58 or so just before 1.2 hit, which made me sad in so far as it meant that gear of equal quality to what I was wearing and had worked for was immediately going to become available for credits to everyone, and I was going to reach Battlemaster just after it stopped having any practical use. Oh joy.

In practice however it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. I just transitioned smoothly from buying Champion gear to buying Battlemaster gear with my commendations, and when I did get the Battlemaster title I still felt proud of it regardless. The only thing that baffled me a little is that the weekly PvP quest now gives the exact same rewards as the daily, which feels a bit pointless, but Bioware keeps making small quality of life changes in that area as we speak. Only the other week they changed the daily requirements from winning three matches to playing six, with a win counting for two. If you can just win three games in a row that changes absolutely nothing for you, but for those of us who are often on the losing side it means that we finally get at least something for doggedly going into one losing match after another, instead of never reaping any rewards at all.

It's only now that I've completed my Battlemaster set that the prospect of grinding for ranked commendations to upgrade to War Hero is starting to look a bit daunting. I suspect that my play in that area will slow down a bit - however, I still have my Jedi knight in the levelling bracket, and I finally bit the bullet and bought some Recruit gear for my Sage so that I can start getting her into the action at max level as well.

I have to admit, I'm not at all anxious to see ranked warzones and cross-server grouping, even though I understand why more hardcore PvPers are probably itching to get into it. I haven't got any real close "PvP buddies", but I don't need to play with close friends to feel joy in recognising familiar names in each warzone, being greeted by a tank who puts his guard on me because he remembers me being a healer, or sharing a joke in ops chat with everyone's favourite fat twi'lek.


Day 3: Companions

This is the third post in my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots challenge. Click on any screenshot to see a larger version.

I remember one of the stranger criticisms that I sometimes heard about The Old Republic immediately after its launch: "My companion keeps getting in the way of me clicking on things!" As a newly rolled trooper, I couldn't relate to this at all. Aric was a fairly meek follower who never got in my way, ever. In fact I frequently had to double-check that he hadn't got left behind on an elevator somewhere.

I love this screenshot of me and my boyfriend casting mortar volley in sync, while both of our Arics... just stand there and look at their toes. Good job, boys. Seriously though, Aric is quite handy. I found his dps very helpful while levelling up as a healer.

However, to go back to the comment about companions getting in the way, I later found out that 99.9% of those complainers had started out rolling Sith inquisitors. Their first companion is Khem Val, a huge monster. And if your companion is really big, it can become an issue occasionally, as I eventually found out when I got M1-4X.

"Do you mind? I was trying to talk to that barkeep."

Nonetheless, 4X has pretty much become my favourite companion since I hit max level. (My boyfriend initially shortened his name to M1, but I kept complaining that he's not a motorway.) Once I started doing dailies on my own, I became really annoyed with Aric's inability to hold aggro, and 4X became my new best friend. You just have to get into a bit of a rhythm while playing with him, as he needs to be in melee range to tank effectively but is usually quite happy to just shoot things from afar whenever his harpoon is on cooldown, so you have to provide him with some direction.

Personality-wise, he's also by far the funniest companion that I've encountered in the game so far. Simply put, he's a Republic zealot, and everything he says and does is so hilariously over the top, you can't help but laugh. Some of the personal conversations we had had me in stitches. And if you click on him one too many times, he might just say: "You needn't worry, sir, my armoured chassis is impenetrable to your touch, no matter how repetitive!" Don't ever change, my crazy killer droid.


Four Mini Podcast Reviews

Back when I used to play WoW, I often liked to listen to WoW fan podcasts while playing. Doing the same thing in The Old Republic is a bit trickier if you're questing and don't want to miss the voice work, but it's not too hard to occasionally pause whatever you're listening to in order to have a chat with all the NPCs at a quest hub, and then resume the playback once you're out and about killing things again.

One thing I've found remarkable about all the SWTOR podcasts I've listened to so far is that none of them have been badly made, even if some of them didn't personally appeal to me because of the hosts or the content. While looking for WoW podcasts I always had huge issues with finding way too many of them that had no structure and were badly edited, but with TOR podcasts I haven't run into a single one with any of these problems yet. Kudos to a knowledgeable community.

Here are four podcasts that I've been listening to for a while and what I think of them (in a nutshell). I might eventually post more reviews like this as I've been trying to broaden my horizons, but I need to listen to multiple episodes of each new podcast before I can really form an opinion on it.

The Instance: The Old Republic Edition

The Instance is one of the longest-running and most popular WoW podcasts. Being an avid listener, I was very pleased when they announced that they were going to start recording a SWTOR version as well, even if this immediately came with the bad news that Turpster (whom I personally consider to be the funniest of the three hosts) wasn't going to join in for this project as he's rather anti Star Wars.

Still, the final result did not disappoint. Scott and Dills still make a funny team, and I feel that Dills in particular actually gets to shine more in the Old Republic Edition than he ever did in the original Instance (possibly due to the absence of Turpster and his fairly dominant personality).

The sad news is that it seems to me that the entertainment value of the last couple of episodes has been declining rapidly. Scott in particular often sounds like he's already a bit bored of the game, and his claims to the contrary don't sound very convincing when he admits in the same breath that he's struggling to get any character past level thirty. It's a very stark contrast to the WoW podcast, where he still manages to get massively excited about every little bit of news even as they are approaching their 300th episode. It's also notable that they have a whole segment dedicated to criticising the game, something that I find rather odd for a fan podcast.

Final verdict: Strong podcasting team, started out great. Lately suffering from declining enthusiasm, and I find myself worrying about the future of the show if Scott would rather play WoW.

Mos Eisley Radio

This is quickly becoming my favourite SWTOR podcast, as it has just the right mix of everything for my taste, including but not limited to: interesting guests and news, intelligent and thoughtful discussion, great enthusiasm for the game but not without a critical eye, and of course a little bit of humour sprinkled on top.

Final verdict: Really can't say anything bad about this one. Highly recommended! I just wish they'd update more often.

Sunny's Diner

Another podcast hosted on the Mos Eisley Radio website. With this one it took me a little while to get into it, because at first I was a bit put off by the title, as I just couldn't decide what to make of the food theme. What do diners have to do with Star Wars?

Once I started listening, I learned that the host considers his show to be "the podcast for the casual SWTOR gamer". Personally, I'm not sure you could be called casual by any means if you listen to or even create podcasts related to your hobby, but maybe that's just me. Thing is, I don't consider myself a casual gamer either... but I still ended up finding Sunny's Diner very appealing. Like MER, it offers both humour and intelligent discussion, and I don't really feel that any of it is particularly targeted at the "casual" gamer only. I suppose they are casual in so far as they don't talk much about endgame activities like operations, but I'm quite happy to just listen to their general observations and stories about the game anyway.

Final verdict: Similar to Mos Eisley Radio really, even if it features different people. Don't be confused by the food themed title and intro, it's about SWTOR through and through. Shorter in length than the average MER episode, but just as entertaining.

Corellian Run Radio

I only started listening to this podcast comparatively recently, after one of the hosts guest-starred on Mos Eisley Radio. One thing that I immediately found refreshing about Corellian Run Radio is that it's a SWTOR podcast that appears to be primarily run by ladies - even better: ladies that are clearly hugely enthusiastic about the game. That's not to say that they never criticise anything, but even then you can always tell that they are extremely passionate about the game in a good way. This is a great podcast to listen to if other people's negative comments ever get you down.

The only problem I have with Corellian Run Radio is the main host, Carla - at least sometimes. I'd like to emphasise that this is completely subjective, but something about her accent often makes me cringe, and more often than not her opinions on what's best about the game are diametrically opposed to mine. After the umpteenth time of her declaring why the Republic is lame and how she can't wait for the game to get a dungeon finder and cross-server grouping, I just want to shut the whole thing off sometimes. However, she still does a good job regardless.

Final verdict: A podcast that radiates love and enthusiasm for the game. Only "issue" is that the main host has a very strong personality, something that you might find great... but if you're anything like me, there's also a chance that you might find it annoying instead.


Mounts And Pets - Why Less Can Be More

A few days ago Liore made a post about why she found that SWTOR wasn't compelling enough for her to keep paying a subscription for it, and one of her main reasons can basically be summed up as that there wasn't enough "fluff" in the game, in the sense that she felt that there weren't enough features to fiddle with that weren't directly related to character power progression in some way. One of the most common ways in which MMOs provide this is by allowing people to collect differently coloured mounts and a variety of companion pets.

She's probably on to something there as I know that there are a lot of people out there who do love these things... but it also inspired me finally to write a post that has been on my mind for a while now - about why I'm personally glad that The Old Republic currently doesn't have oodles of different mounts and pets.

I suppose that part of it is simply that I'm not someone who cares a lot about mounts and pets to begin with. But there's a difference between just not caring and actively enjoying their scarcity.

To be honest, initially I even thought that SWTOR didn't even have any companion pets at all, because I didn't see any of them around for a long time. I knew that some people had that collector's edition minimech, but based on how rarely I saw it even on people of whom I knew that they had one, I figured that it was just an on-use item with a short duration, not a proper pet.

And then... came Stevie.

One day I noticed that one of my guildies had a miniature sandcrawler following him around during pretty much every operation. When asked about this, he solemnly explained that the little guy's name was Stevie and that he was his pet. I found this incredibly amusing. Over time, Stevie actually became something of a team mascot, and we would joke about him finishing off the boss, or being afraid of jumping off ledges if his pathing was buggy.

Imagine my horror when I found out one day that Stevie had fallen out of favour and had been replaced by one of those newfangled orokeets. I actually made a point of buying a little sandcrawler of my own, just to summon him during operations every now and then and talk about how Stevie had run away from home due to neglect and I had adopted him. It's been fun.

I don't have any stories that are quite as good about truly special mounts, though seeing a Tirsa Elite drop still never fails to make people chuckle, considering how excited everyone got about it when we looted one for the first time... until we actually saw it in action and realised that it was basically the TOR equivalent of a Lada. Nowadays people pray that they'll lose the roll. (For anyone curious, it's too late for me; I already won one.)

What these stories have in common is that the pets and mounts featured in them only provide a fun memorable experience when there is a certain scarcity of them. A single non-combat pet is unlikely to become the talking point of the raid if everyone has one out every night. (In WoW I pretty much stopped perceiving them completely after a while, as most people would just parade around with whatever was the newest shop item or holiday reward, and it became about as interesting as following fashion trends - to me personally, not at all). The prospect of receiving a new mount isn't very exciting if you already have a hundred and fifty others.

Keep in mind that this is not necessarily an argument in favour of elitism - the Little SandCrawler can be bought from a vendor at the fleet in unlimited supplies and only costs a few thousand credits. However, there is no particular incentive for everyone to buy one, as the game currently doesn't reward you simply for owning things, nor did every single subscriber get one in the mail for free (/cough - tauntaun - /cough).

What is the point of having people "collect" hundreds of mounts and pets if you can only have one out at a time and continually cycling through them is tedious? It's like having a giant wardrobe full of clothes that you know you'll never wear. It reminds me unpleasantly of real life and how people are constantly encouraged to buy stuff that they are never going to use, just for the sake of being a consumer. And I get enough of that in real life; I don't want it to intrude into my online fantasy world.

So from my point of view, I say yes to having some more variety of pets and mounts, so that people can pick one that they like, but no to introducing more and more of them just to encourage people to hoard. Unless they go all-out in the other direction by making it so that having multiple pets or vehicles actually serves some kind of purpose (by adding combat functionality, making them usable by companions or whatever. Oh, and simply showing off does count as a purpose - but owning lots of stuff that people are never going to see isn't even showing off.)


Day 2: Class Stories

This is the second post in my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots challenge. Click on any screenshot to see a larger version.

One of the things I feel The Old Republic doesn't get nearly enough credit for is its cinematic direction. Everyone talks about the conversation choices and the voice acting, but imagine that all these things took place with your camera panned out in the same way it usually is. Would that be fun? "Wait, which of these two NPCs is the one talking right now? That one is waving his hands. Let's look at the chat log to see who's speaking. Is she frowning at me? /zooms in... oh, what were we talking about again?"

But no, Bioware knows that voice acting aside, humans are very visual creatures. They make sure that the camera is focused on who's speaking, that we can see their expressions and body language, and that the camera angles change frequently enough to keep us engaged. I think that this is great stuff. While doing my Jedi consular's class quest on Balmorra, there was one encounter in particular where I was actually squealing at my screen with glee (no hyperbole) because of the camera work and my character's expressions. I tried to take pictures of it but unfortunately I was suffering from the bug at the time that sometimes prevents the print screen button from working during cut scenes.

Anyway, as for the screenshot above, I like it because of the faint smile on my trooper's face and how you can see her companions watching in the background.

Purely in terms of game mechanics, the final chapter of the trooper class quest remains my favourite so far because of how your choices actually change how you play through part of it. Basically an attack is being staged along three parallel paths, and you get to pick which one you want to cover personally. I picked the one that the NPCs advertised as the most difficult one, and while I don't know whether it actually was the most difficult, I was certainly impressed by the visuals of getting to blow up giant droids by calling in air strikes. I have to admit that this is one of those cases where I kind of find myself wishing for a single-player save game, just so I could check out all the different options without levelling another two troopers from scratch.

So that my Jedi consular doesn't feel out, let's have one screenshot of her with Supreme Chancellor Saresh. Female twi'lek power! As an aside, I found it quite interesting how Saresh, whom you first meet as the governor of Taris, ends up becoming Supreme Chancellor, especially considering that we know that the Taris reconstruction effort doesn't actually work out in the long run. What made her so popular? Does anyone know whether her story is covered in another class story or a book? I'm really quite fascinated by the various glimpses we get of her character.


How massive do you want your MMO to be anyway?

In case you haven't heard yet, The Old Republic's subscriptions are down by almost a quarter since EA's last earnings call. Obviously this isn't good news for anyone who wants to see the game succeed, though 1.3 million subs are still nothing to scoff at. In all honesty though, I kind of expected this drop-off to happen, even if I was hoping for Bioware's sake that it wouldn't. It's been quite obvious from the gaming media that SWTOR has become a victim of its own hype and that many people who bought into it ended up being disappointed and leaving the game. Those numbers were going to show sooner or later, and that's okay.

The thing is, it's still a great game for what it is, and the important thing for the devs to do right now is to keep making improvements and adding new content for the players who do like it. If people are having enough fun, they'll tell their friends. Just don't panic about winning back every single person who bought the game on launch and ended up unsubbing shortly after. I get that EA wants to have as many subscribers as possible, but you can't please all the people all the time - and honestly? My own game experience is actually better without people whining in general chat about how Bioware fails and how they are going back to WoW soon. 

On a related note, but not entirely the same subject, the official forums are awash with demands for server merges. Inquisitive Myths has some interesting numbers on how active some servers really are. Now, I understand that it is possible for a server's population to shrink enough that group activities stop being viable, but I do kind of wonder where that limit actually lies. (A future subject for Mythbusting perhaps?) In general I would think that SWTOR servers should actually be able to sustain themselves with a smaller population than those in many other MMOs, simply because standard groups generally only require four or eight people (sixteen is possible for operations but I think that's a bit of a niche thing considering that there's no benefit to it), where other games require larger numbers. I wonder how much of the "my server is dead" talk is really just perception.

I mean, what are your first thoughts when you see this screenshot? "My god, that server is dead"? Does it make it any better if I add that it was taken at roughly 5am CET, when all the night owls had finally gone to bed but the early risers weren't online yet? To me it was certainly a bit of a novelty to be the only person on the fleet, but I didn't find it disconcerting. Maybe it's an old-fashioned view to still think of my fellow players as people more than content, but it comes naturally to me to accept that people need to sleep sometimes. It's part of the natural rhythm of the world, both real and virtual. When I saw someone whine about how dead the game was just because they couldn't get a group for normal mode Taral V at 3am in the morning, I just thought that this was ridiculous.

Sometimes I also wonder whether Bioware haven't done themselves a disservice by putting that little population number in the top left corner of the screen in each zone. I mean, I appreciate it as a feedback tool, because it makes it easy to adjust my expectations for getting a response to requests or questions posted in general chat, but I get the impression that a lot of people simply look at it, see a single digit and immediately feel like the sky is falling. In another game, the zones might have exactly the same or even a lower population, but because it's not actively pointed out to the player and most don't bother with using the /who command all the time, they might never even notice. "I can't believe I'm the only person in Un'goro Crater right now, clearly WoW is dead!"

Maybe it's also because I have a lower "crowd threshold" than others due to being a bit of an introvert. Of course I want to see other people around in my MMO, but I don't necessarily need to have loads of them in one spot. Every now and then it's nice to have a big event that brings everyone together, but I don't need massive crowds in my everyday play. Being unable to click on the NPCs because there are so many other players in the way doesn't enhance my gaming experience. The Republic fleet on my server rarely sees more than fifty people online whenever I'm around, but to me this feels just fine. In fact, when I log over to an Empire alt and there's two to three times as many people on and general chat is buzzing with LFG requests, it actually makes me feel a bit overwhelmed.

All that said, I can absolutely see that there are certain thresholds where lower population becomes an issue. For example we pretty much never have more than two warzones running at once on Republic side, one for the low levels and one for the fifties. This means that if you're the ninth person in the queue you have to wait twenty to thirty minutes between matches even during prime time, and two or three people deciding to stop for the night immediately prevents any new games from popping at all, effectively grounding everyone else as well.

I do hope that Bioware will think of a good way of addressing these issues, though for now there are at least some stopgap measures that people can take to alleviate the situation themselves. To use my warzone example, no time like the present to get some guildies interested in PvP if you're just one or two people short for getting a game to pop...


Explosive Conflict: Early Impressions

I think it's telling that 1.2 has been out for almost a month and it's only now that I'm able to give as much as early impressions of the new operation. Like Burning Crusade-era WoW, The Old Republic gives me the feeling that it's okay to progress at my own pace, allowing me to finish what I'm currently working on without forcing me into the new content right away. It will still be there and relevant later, and I like that.

To be fair though, I was very keen on seeing the new operation from the start, it just wasn't possible right away for a variety of reasons. Guild leadership wanted us to finish clearing Eternity Vault and Karagga's Palace on hard mode first to gear up some more (which we did) and some nights we just didn't have the right people online to work on progression fights. I think most raiders know what that can be like.

Last night however we finally ventured into Explosive Conflict and it was great fun! We did some wiping on Zorn and Toth, adjusted our strategy with each attempt, and eventually got them down. It was a very satisfying learning process. I thought the difficulty was similar to that of hardmode Gharj: a fairly straightforward fight in principle, but with a certain sensitivity to movement - not in a twitchy way, but basically there are two or three boss abilities that can really wreck your raid if either the boss or any players are standing in the wrong place. For our group this worked very well, though I have to concede that considering that this is supposed to be "story mode", it might turn out to be a bit hard for the average pug group.

I have to admit I was initially slightly disappointed to see that the encounter "only" dropped Rakata gear, as I wanted to see some of the new shiny, but of course this is perfectly in line with the loot ladder system that Bioware seems to have set up for operations, where the early bosses of each new (difficulty) tier drop the same kind of loot as the last bosses of the previous tier. I suppose this more gradual loot progression is a good way of not rendering previous content irrelevant straight away and keeping gear inflation at manageable levels. And it's not as if we all had Rakata pieces in all slots already - the drops were definitely appreciated.

The trash to the next boss turned out to be a bit of an adventure - not because it was particularly difficult, but because our raid group was a bit like an overly excited bunch of weasels, running off in all directions at once.

"Hey, did you see that lore object over there? We have to get it!"
"Orokeets! Wonder if they drop Unusual Eggs?" Random bird slaughter ensues. No, we didn't find anything.
"I heard that they are hidden loot chests in this place! 'Hidden' similar to the way datacrons are hidden." Everyone starts trying to climb random cliffs and looking behind rocks. (For the record, we only found one loot chest, and that was pretty much in plain sight.)
"Look at that waterfall!"
"Hey, there are trash mobs over there! All we need to do now is kill them!" (That was one of our tanks, seemingly getting a bit tired of the randomness.)

The next boss was a fight against two giant tanks, and actually felt easier to me than Zorn and Toth did, but then I apparently got to heal on the easier one of the two tanks. We didn't get them down because the long corpse run delayed us considerably and eventually it got late and people had to leave, but it felt to me like victory was definitely in reach. I'm really excited about getting back in there and continuing. And that, I think, is about as good a feeling as I can get from any game.


Day 1: Bugs

This is the first post in my 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots challenge. Click on any screenshot to see a larger version.

Bugs in raids are rarely fun, because often they prevent you from killing bosses even if you are capable, or they make you jump through unnecessary hoops just to be able to re-attempt the fight (such as resetting the whole instance and clearing the trash again - I'm looking at you, HM Fabricator and pre-1.2 HM Ancient Pylons).

However, every now and then you do get a laugh out of one, such as in this case, where a trash mob in Karagga's Palace somehow became immune to damaging abilities but was also perma-stunned at the same time - so he just stood there, twitching helplessly and keeping us in combat. We eventually managed to resolve the issue by punting him off a nearby elevator shaft where he died from the fall damage, which we thought was most amusing. As an aside, I'm not sure my guild leader is supposed to be nothing but a floating double-bladed lightsaber either.

On Corellia you meet an alien race called the Drall (as Republic anyway), or as I refer to them, "the guinea pig men". On my consular I got to go into a library that was full of them, but they didn't all look entirely well. I mean, I see a leg, but everything else looks kind of... inside out?

This one might've been a graphics glitch more than a bug, but I still found it most unsettling: my twi'lek's lekku disappeared while questing in the Black Hole! And no, that didn't just make her look like a normal person with green skin... it was just wrong.


10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots

Let's have a thing! Back when the sixth screenshot meme was going around, I didn't have that many shots of the game to post yet, but I've been working hard on growing my collection. Unfortunately I'm bad at finding excuses to insert pictures into my posts, so I'll simply make one up: let's have one of those "X days of blah" things! In this case, 10 Days of SWTOR Screenshots.

I'll post these over the course of the next couple of weeks, in-between my normal posts, but other people are welcome to join in as well of course. You can post just one screenshot or many, raw or edited, with or without commentary, as long as it was actually taken by you.

Here are the themes for the ten days:

Day 1: Bugs
Let's start the challenge off the same way the game started off: somewhat buggy. The most annoying ones are usually hard to take screenshots of, but personally I've also seen plenty of bugs and glitches that were very obvious and often funny.

Day 2: Class Stories
Share one or more screenshots of your class story, preferably without massive spoilers.

Day 3: Companions
Show us your favourite minion(s) doing what they usually do.

Day 4: Missions & Conversations
I found that with the more involved dialogue and little cut scenes in SWTOR, I sometimes take screenshots of missions that would otherwise be quite mundane, but the game manages to transform them into something bigger and more interesting.

Day 5: Gear
Show us your favourite piece of gear or outfit - or one that you hated but wore anyway (at least for a while) because of the stats.

Day 6: Environments
Picture(s) from your favourite planet or maybe a neat little corner somewhere that most people overlook but that you think is interesting.

Day 7: Team
Like most MMOs, SWTOR is the most fun in a group! Show us your team, however you define that term in this game.

Day 8: Memorable Moments
A challenge you were proud to overcome, or something that really impressed or entertained you.

Day 9: Silly
The previous days might have contained some silly screenshots already, but since you can never have too many silly screenshots, this is the day to fit in any remaining ones that didn't go with previous themes!

Day 10: Death
Dying in SWTOR is not that unusual and you have to get used to it. Got any screenshots of interesting places and times your character died?

(As an aside, this is my 50th post on this blog. Hurrah!)


Heroic Moment And Legacy Abilities

The legacy abilities that you unlock by completing the class stories of different characters were one of the patch 1.2 features that caused a lot of confusion before the patch's actual release. People were just going completely wild imagining themselves killing others in PvP by spamming legacy force lightning on their smuggler or whatever, and these fantasies got spread around as misinformation and caused some seriously skewed expectations in some players. I always figured that the actual implementation in the game was going to be a lot tamer and I was okay with that.

However, now that it's actually in the game, I have to admit that I still feel a bit let down. Last night I was really struggling with a boss fight on my Jedi knight, so I started looking for any useful abilities in my abilities panel that I might have overlooked and that might give me that extra edge needed to defeat the guy that was repeatedly kicking my behind.

It hit me that I had both Legacy Sticky Grenade and Legacy Project but hadn't used either of them yet - even though I had used my Heroic Moment itself multiple times since the patch. I'm not sure what exactly I expected, but I did think that there was going to be some sort of prompt for those abilities whenever you triggered your heroic moment, whether it was a new action bar, a button flashing up on the side of the screen... I don't know, anything.

By treating the legacy abilities like any others, the devs are basically asking us to reserve up to eight action bar slots for cooldowns within cooldowns that you'll only be able to use while soloing and even then only once every twenty minutes or so. Considering that at fifty, my action bars get pretty cluttered with my regular abilities as it is, that's not something I particularly like. I mean: yes, if I'm really struggling with a fight I guess I am willing to rearrange everything to fit those extra cooldowns on my bar somewhere, but rearranging my action bars all the time definitely strikes me as the kind of thing that nobody should be expected to do.

The even bigger letdown for me however was the fact that every legacy ability also has an individual ten minute cooldown on top of the Heroic Moment cooldown. I actually recall hearing about this pre-patch and thinking that it must have been a misquote or something because it just sounded so nonsensical. Is this really fun? Hit Heroic Moment, hit Legacy Sticky Grenade once, hit Legacy Project once, continue fighting as normal because that's it? That's what I put those abilities on my bar for?

It's not even as if they do amazing amounts of damage, it's just another special which costs no resources. Throwing a rock at my enemy for once instead of hitting him the normal way is more of a flavour thing than anything else, but there isn't much flavour to be had if you only ever get to do it once. I'm not saying these abilities should have no cooldowns at all (presumably the devs don't just want us to spam them, even while being heroic), but considering that Heroic Moment lasts a whole minute, would it be that bad to let us use each skill at least a couple of times during that time? I think there are enough limitations on the system to prevent it from being ridiculously overpowered, even without the extra ten minute cooldown on each individual ability.

I really hope that this is something they'll revisit at a later point to spice it up a little. I think it's a neat idea, limitations and all, but at the moment it strikes me as so limited that you can pretty much blink and miss it, which is simply a shame.

(I did manage to beat the guy with that extra edge though. Cursed random security guys that are tougher than darths...)