Dreadful and Hateful Entity

Today was an interesting day for me in SWTOR, as we set out with an allied guild to kill both the Dreadful and the Hateful Entity. We defeated the first one with ease, and came nowhere near killing the second, despite of several hours of trying.

If you've going "Dreadful/Hateful Entity, what?", you're probably not alone, as these are "secret" bosses that were shrouded in mystery for quite a long time (by MMO standards) and even now relatively little information is available about them compared to most operations bosses. Personally I never expected to get a close-up look at either, so this (somewhat unexpected) afternoon event with an allied guild that is more progressed than my own worked out nicely for me.

It all starts with Dreadtooth, the world boss in Section X. He drops an item called Dreadful Essence, which you can throw right back at him when he respawns to buff him up, stacking up to ten times. There are achievements for killing him at different buff levels, as he grows more powerful and gains extra mechanics. At level fifty it used to take a full raid group of 24 to kill him when fully powered up, though now it can be done with less. At ten stacks, he also drops a so-called Dreadful Amulet, which can be used in the cave between the first and second boss in TFB HM (16-man only) to summon the Dreadful Entity. It has an ability called "Dread Touch", which will insta-kill anyone who doesn't wear a special mask that is also dropped by Dreadtooth (at all power levels). If you manage to kill the Dreadful Entity, it then drops an item called Dreadful Orb, which in turn can be used to summon the Hateful Entity in the cave between the second and third boss in Scum NiM (again, 16-man only).

Our group started the afternoon in Section X, killing Dreadtooth over and over again to collect masks for people who didn't have one yet and to gather more Dreadful Essences to buff the boss and get a couple of Dreadful Amulets. (I'll admit that it wasn't entirely clear to me why we needed to do this as we already had at least one amulet and you only need one to actually summon the Dreadful Entity.) This got pretty boring quickly if I'm honest, simply because of Dreadtooth's half hour respawn timer, which is just short enough that you can't really go off and do much else (we did a round of dailies once, but that only took so long), but long enough that it's boring to sit around and wait. I was glad when we finally moved on to TFB.

The Dreadful Entity fight felt surprisingly easy, though I suspect that this may be down to the fact that it was originally designed for level fifty and hasn't scaled up very well. It wasn't fantastically interesting either. The entity is basically just a floating ball of lightning with bits swirling around it (like the thing you loot after having defeated the Terror from Beyond) that needs kiting around since it periodically leaves lightning circles on the floor. It also bounces people around a lot. We got it down on the first try. It also didn't drop anything other than the Dreadful Orb, which I found kind of disappointing, though we all earned the "Dread Slayer" title for killing it.

Then we moved on to Scum NiM, where we didn't do nearly as well. I think our best attempt saw us getting the Hateful Entity to 40-odd percent before its hard enrage killed everyone. I wasn't surprised, considering that in our guild we haven't even managed to kill any of the normal bosses in Scum NiM so far. Why would we fare any better against a bonus boss? The Hateful Entity definitely felt a lot harder as well - it looks just like its Dreadful counterpart, only with a red tint, and also drops lightning on the floor, but it felt - to me at least - that it bounced people around a lot more often, which made it very hard to cast anything. It also casts death marks that will insta-kill people if not dispelled, like Dread Master Tyrans does on the council fight at the end of Dread Palace, so you have to keep an eye on that as well.

The ops leader kept us "practising" for a long time even though we weren't making any progress and it eventually got very tiring, but it was still an interesting experience. I feel less ashamed about us doing so badly after having had a bit of a read around on the subject and finding out that even though it's been six months since the Hateful Entity's world first kill, even now the number of guilds that have killed it on most servers is very small. It's just that tough.

I think that both the entity fights are pretty interesting experiments on the part of Bioware. They strike me as a nod to super hardcore raiders (the kind for whom even most NiM fights are too easy), with all the trappings of a more old school raid experience: from discovering the "secret" way of gaining access to the boss to having to farm up resistance gear for the whole raid (the masks). At the same time Bioware kept the amount of assets used to create this experience to a minimum: the bosses just use an existing model with no animations, don't really have any particularly interesting mechanics and don't give any particularly great rewards (just a title, and apparently the Hateful Entity drops masks with an alternate model, using that of the Dread Masters instead of the Dread Guard look of the Dreadtooth mask). They are just hard bosses, requiring good dps, healing, positioning and co-ordination. Their sole appeal lies in the fact that their mere existence is a challenge to progression raiders: Can you beat me?

I wonder if we'll see a continuation of this entity thing, or something similar with a different theme, in the next tier of operations, or whether Bioware has decided that even with the limited investment in terms of art assets etc. it wasn't worth the effort since too few people ever saw those fights.



Doing the Balmorran bonus series on Republic side for the first time in a while, I found myself talking to an NPC called Larindaz, a Kubaz who gives the [Heroic 4] mission "Acquired Taste". Kubaz are aliens with big snouts/trunks, with the prime example being the spy that you see in Mos Eisley in A New Hope. In The Old Republic, I can only think of two occasions where they make an appearance, an Imperial quest on Dromund Kaas that asks you to kill some, and this mission on Republic Balmorra.

The thing that fascinates me every time is that even though this guy is the only Kubaz you ever talk to, his snout has been lovingly animated to twitch and wiggle throughout the entire conversation, which I find absolutely mesmerising. Every time. (It doesn't help that the way it is rendered in this particular instance, it also reminds me a bit of a certain part of the human anatomy.)

I thought about simply posting a screenshot, but that wouldn't do the lovely wriggling any justice, so I made a short little video. See for yourself!

And yes, I'm easily amused.


Twitchy Sentinel Syndrome

I realised the other day that I'm up to four tanking alts - only one of them is actually max level, but still... you'd think that I was really fond of tanking or something. I do find it a reasonably fun role to play, if nothing else because I prefer playing support roles over just doing dps, but it doesn't really come naturally to me in the same way as healing because it requires you to take point and be willing to take the lead in groups, neither of which I'm very good at. It doesn't help that impatient group members can make your job a real pain by running ahead and pulling for you, and if you prefer a slightly slower pace of play the way I do, then that's even more likely to happen.

Pet tank and I were musing about this the other day and how it always seems to be the Sentinels/Marauders who insist on jumping in first.

Exhibit A: in the centre of this screenshot we've got myself, tanking Hammer Station on my baby Juggernaut and about to charge into the next pull... except that one of the two Marauders in the group has already leapt in, and the other one is in the process of somersaulting over my head. I suppose it's something about the way the class is designed - Force Leap is fun, I won't deny that, and the way the class maintains buffs, they tend to last just long enough to encourage charging from one pull to the next to keep those buffs rolling.

Most other classes on the other hand have at least some reason to not go in before the tank. Range dps tends to simply lag a little behind due to the nature of their job, and stealth classes that want to start the pull from stealth have to spend some time manoeuvring into position, which doesn't lend itself to quick ninja pulls in quite the same way. Dps Vanguards and Guardians, while theoretically in a good position to start the pull (well-armoured melee, tempting ranged attacks, Force Leap) are probably less likely to do so because they have to prove extra hard that they are dedicated to playing dps - not tanks! - seeing how their classes have tanking specs too and they've probably been exposed to at least a little bit of peer pressure to take up tanking at some point.

Then again, maybe I'm trying to over-rationalise this and there's just something about double lightsabers that attracts hyper players with extremely short attention spans. If I had a credit for every Sentinel I've seen who bounces up and down like a loony even between trash pulls or during boss fights, I'd have a nice little sum.


More on Housing: Galactic Strongholds

Less than two weeks after the release of the teaser trailer telling us about housing coming in the next expansion, Bioware has made an official announcement about it, complete with a proper trailer and a page full of information about the upcoming additions.

First off, it's going to be called "Galactic Strongholds". I wonder if "Galactic So-and-so" is going to become a theme when it comes to expansion names. I have to admit that I find the "Stronghold" title a bit silly because... it's an apartment. That's hardly what I'd call a stronghold. But I get that they wanted to make it sound like something big and... heroic. Or something.

Of the questions I had after first seeing the teaser trailer, few have been answered so far, as we still don't know just how far our ability to customise our new living space will actually go. The info page does mention crafting as a source of furniture, and the trailer hints at gaudy trophies dropping from operations bosses in the future. (Why I would want a statue of Karagga's ugly mug in my living room, I don't know, though I do find the idea vaguely amusing.) We know that the planets we can live on will be limited to each faction's capital and Nar Shaddaa for starters, which is a bit of a disappointment for those of us who were hoping to get a place somewhere more remote, but I guess there is always room for expansion in that area later on.

What really blew my mind however (and the minds of many other people, going by the reactions on Twitter) were the casual mentions of some of the additional features coming in Galactic Strongholds, most prominently guild flagships and legacy storage. It's funny because both of those features are things that I heard fans bring up during speculation about what else the housing expansion might bring, and personally I brushed them off as overly hopeful. Sometimes it's really nice to be wrong!

Guild flagships in particular are one of those things that parts of the community have been absolutely obsessed with almost since launch and that came up at pretty much every Q&A session with the developers. The answer was always something along the lines of "we'd love to have them, but can't see it happen any time soon". Hah! I guess the folks at Bioware are getting the hang of this whole "under-promise, then over-deliver" thing (which is better than building lots of hype about something that just falls flat on its face later).

I do like the idea of a guild having its own dedicated space in the galaxy - I was quite impressed with all the holdings you can acquire for your fleet in Star Trek Online as well - though I'm not going to get too excited until I know what you can actually do with/on those capital ships. As I've said while previously talking about housing in general, I don't see the point of just creating spaces to hang out in with no purpose and that just end up isolating people.

The one thing that concerns me a little is that, whether it'll be real money or in-game credits, I expect guild flagships to not come in cheap, and I wonder how this will affect smaller guilds, especially since my own has shrunk quite a bit over the last couple of months. Will we even be able to get one?

Legacy storage sounds like another excellent feature that (in my opinion) has been long overdue for SWTOR, considering its heavy focus on all your characters being united under the banner of a single legacy. This should bring great relief for those of us who are always mailing things back and forth between their alts and then forget who's holding what. One of my guildies went so far as to suggest that this would mean an end to all character-bound items: you could just put a bound bit of gear into the legacy bank and then get it out on another character. Personally I don't see that happening, as I can easily imagine Bioware placing a restriction on the legacy bank that prevents you from putting character-bound items in it... but that's not really what I'd personally want it for anyway. I'm more thinking companion gifts and crafting materials.

Either way, it's obvious that this expansion is going to be much meatier than most people would've expected when we only had that short teaser trailer of someone walking around an apartment to go on. I can't wait to find out more details!


The Pug Bug

So, two things kind of happened in the last couple of weeks. First, I found myself giving some attention to my Imperial max-level alts as my guild has been doing some Imperial alt operations for the first time in ages, and I was kind of shocked by just how badly some of them were geared. I shouldn't have been surprised, considering that I haven't done much with them other than level them to the cap and run a couple of flashpoints, but it was still a jarring contrast to how well-geared even my lesser played Republic alts are. So I decided to give them a bit more love in the near future, if nothing else just by sending some spare gear over from Republic side, or checking whether they had some quests left to do that would give decent rewards.

The other thing that happened is that I've been levelling my little Vanguard, and since I intentionally left her un-guilded for now, I've actually been reading general chat on her. On all my other characters I have it hidden away in a separate tab not necessarily because it's terrible, but because I'm paranoid about missing guild chat or personal messages if they have to share a space with the never-ending flow of random chatter that is general chat on the fleet. By actually paying attention to general for a change, I found myself surprised by just how many operations pugs people were putting together at all times of day, both for old and new content.

These two observations coalesced in my brain to form the following thought: why not take some of my lesser played alts to an ops pug when I have the time? I may not be as skilled on the ones I don't play as often, but I'm not terrible either and I know all the tactics. It would be an opportunity to finally complete some of the ops story quests that certain characters have had in their logs pretty much for as long as I can remember, as well as a chance at some gear upgrades from boss drops. How bad could it be?

Well, actually it turned out to be awesome. The very first pug I jumped into, 16-man TFB on my dps Guardian, was led by someone who was both friendly as well as extremely competent. They made it clear from the start that it wasn't a problem if anyone needed fight explanations, but as it happened we had a full group of people who already knew the instance. We breezed through the place in little more than an hour, and the ops leader only had to give the occasional pointer where special roles needed to be assigned (such as who should click the consoles on Operator).

Since then I also joined a KP hardmode run on my Gunslinger and knocked out Dread Fortress on three different alts that hadn't done it yet. I won't claim that it was a perfect experience - there were a couple of slightly annoying people, and there was that one time we had a really silly wipe on the first trash pull in DF - but on the whole it's been very good. Groups fill up quickly and with the exception of some people who are looking to fill the last few spots in their hardmode runs, I've never seen anyone ask about achievements, gear or even spec. You just whisper your role and if it's something the group still needs, the invite comes flying. Despite of this complete lack of vetting, I have yet to see anyone join who was dramatically undergeared or incompetent. Sure, you'll always get someone who dies to silly things, but story mode is tuned to forgive the occasional blunder, and most people seem to know what to do. I suspect this is the side of pugging that is rarely talked about: that it's not just for the new and clueless, but also serves as a playground for people like me who are on their fifth alt and are confident in being able to do the job. (And from the looks of it there are a lot of us.)

Behaviour-wise, people tend to be quiet and focused on the job, but overall the atmosphere is pleasant. I haven't seen any blatant rudeness or ninja-looting so far. It seems that the social checks and balances are in place - nobody wants to make themselves or their guild look bad in front of people that they might rely on again for the next pug. And of course it helps that there are no add-ons like damage meters for people to needlessly scrutinise other players' performance. Every member of the group is just another helpful addition.

I suspect that there will be a lot more pugging like that in my future - it's surprisingly quick and quite rewarding. (Even if you don't win any rolls, you get a fair amount of commendations and some of the one-time quests give good rewards too: yay for Arkanian relics from the DF story mission!) I even made a little spreadsheet (don't judge me) to note down which of my alts still have quests to do in which operation. If you've been thinking about stepping into an operations pug yourself, it seems to me that now is a great time.


Macrobinoculars and Seeker Droids - Where Should They Go?

First off, I have to say that Macrobinoculars and Seeker Droids are annoyingly long words with no real synonyms, so it's quite hard to come up with a good title for a post about them that is informative without sounding too clunky. I'm not sure I succeeded in this case.

Either way... while thinking about what I liked about Rise of the Hutt Cartel and which features that came with it I'd like to see return in the next story expansion, Macrobinoculars, Seeker Droids and everything associated with them gave me reason to pause. Basically, I previously rated them as pretty nice additions to the game, and I had a ridiculous amount of fun with the heroics that finish off the Shroud and Dread Seed quest lines, at least the first time I did them.

But looking at them now, I feel that they are in a kind of awkward place, and I'm not even sure what I'd want Bioware to do about it.

Basically, when 2.0 came out, both Macrobinoculars and Seeker Droids were pretty self-contained pieces of gameplay. You did the associated quest chains because you wanted to see the story and to unlock the GSI dailies, but if you didn't care about those particular pieces of content, you could take them or leave them. While I seem to recall some non-GSI dailies on Makeb using Macrobinocular-like mechanics, they didn't actually require you to have started the Shroud quest chain, as you were issued a mission item which basically did the same thing as the binocs just for the duration of the quest.

But with the release of CZ-198, something interesting happened. In Czerka Corporate Labs, during the first bit where you need to gather some key cards, you can whip out your binocs to immediately spot in which cubicle each card is hidden. I rarely see anyone bother with it since it barely saves you more than a couple of seconds compared to just checking each desk the "hard" way, but it was an interesting touch to add that. In the daily area, Bioware also hid a "secret" quest chain that required you to use your Macrobinoculars to even activate it and which rewards you with a pet if you complete it. On Oricon, this was taken a step further in that several of the dailies have bonus missions which can only be done if you've got Macrobinoculars and a Seeker Droid on that character.

Now, part of me thinks that's very cool. It shows that Bioware didn't introduce these things as new features with Rise of the Hutt Cartel just to immediately forget about them again - something that is sadly pretty common in MMOs - and that they are trying to integrate them more closely into "regular" gameplay.

The only problem I have in this case... is that I'm not sure I want these things to be part of my regular gameplay. You only really need to do the introductory quests for both the Shroud and the Dread Seed story to unlock the binocs and Seeker Droids for use in other areas, but then you've got two unfinished quest chains sitting in your log. I don't know about you, but personally I hate that. I don't have to do everything on every character, but if I'm going to skip something, then I'm going to skip it entirely. I hate starting something and then abandoning it halfway through. So once I've picked up the Macrobinocular and Seeker Droid quest chains, I'll want to finish them... but they are really long! And at least one of them has a "must have exactly four people for this" heroic at the end, which is a royal pain to get a group for! Basically, they are the types of quests that are great to do once or twice but get incredibly tedious if you repeat them on several characters. Yet the more random content Bioware adds which requires you to have picked up these chains, the more the pressure increases for you to indeed pick them up on all your alts, even if they are annoying to do. It's a bit of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation in my eyes.

The sad thing is, I really have no idea what could be done to improve this situation. Just not adding any more content for these features, ever, would be a bit sad. Yet at the same time I feel that they have a pretty annoying "attunement" for something that you might be expected to have on all of your alts, especially since you can't get started until what, level fifty? Fifty-three? In some ways I can't help but think that these chains would actually make for pretty good levelling content, what with all the travel across levelling planets, but unfortunately the fact that there are pretty explicit references to Makeb and the Dread Masters in the story means that Bioware can't just lower the required level for the quests without muddling up the timeline.

I suppose part of what it comes down to is how fun you consider using your Macrobinoculars and Seeker Droid. If they offer compelling gameplay, then of course there should be more of it, and having to do a lengthy quest chain to fully unlock both features should be no trouble at all. Personally I'm afraid I don't really enjoy them that much though. I stand by what I said about them being neat little mini-games, but... well. I loved using the binocs during the story quest line, to explore my environment and find solutions to overcome the obstacles in my way, but that kind of exploration only really works once. Scanning the same stuff over and over again for the dailies hasn't felt very compelling to me personally.

And Seeker Droids? I'm a little ashamed to say that to this day, I don't really "get" them. I mean, I get the principle behind how they work, but I remain ignorant of the details. For example, when the little circle pops up to show me which direction I should go to dig more, is that from where my character is standing or from where I put down the droid? I often feel like I'm "following" the trail correctly but somehow I just end up going in circles without finding anything, or I suddenly find myself in an area where the guiding circle just goes red (even though a moment ago it told me to go just this way, I swear). I don't really know many people that bother with the random dig sites, though my dear friend Mogle baffled me the other day by casually mentioning that, while using his Seeker Droid to dig up the full Dread Seed armour set, he had accumulated something like 24 bracers and 37 belts. My mind boggles at the mere idea of how much time he must have spent digging, but clearly there is a part of the player base that does enjoy this kind of thing.

What's your attitude towards these features, nearly a year later?


On Nerfs and Nightmare Power

No, not those kinds of nerfs...

GaddockTeeg (JD) of the Unnamed SWTOR Podcast got himself into a bit of a ranting mood this week, both on his show and on Twitter. He really doesn't like one of the upcoming changes in 2.7, and doesn't quite understand why he appears to be almost alone in his outrage. If nothing else, he sure got me thinking on the subject.

In case you didn't know, nightmare mode Dread Fortress is scheduled to release next month, and it's supposed to be just as difficult as previous nightmare modes. However, part of this difficulty will now be rolled into a buff on the bosses called Nightmare Power, which increases their health and damage output. If you manage to kill the last boss while she still has this buff, you'll gain a special title; however at a later point (I think I saw someone say "not by 2.8, later than that") this buff will be removed, making the fights significantly easier in the process. Basically, the hardest content in the game is scheduled to be nerfed, right from the start.

Now, I think that nerfs are never a good thing, because they basically come down to changing the rules of the game after you've given people time to get used to playing under the existing rules and growing to like them. In an ideal world no content would be released until it's perfectly tuned, but since nobody's perfect, there can be understandable reasons to apply nerfs after release. Explosive Conflict story mode was a good example: my guild cleared it and I enjoyed the challenge, but for something that was supposed to be super accessible it was just way overtuned at launch. It wasn't serving its intended purpose; that needed to be changed.

Nerfs also come in different flavours: personally I don't find it too bad if the devs just adjust a boss's health and damage numbers for example, because that doesn't usually change the very nature of the fight too much. Removing or completely trivialising whole mechanics on the other hand is a big no-no in my book (which is why I remain eternally sad about the nerf to the Darth Malgus fight in False Emperor).

Badly done nerfs can indeed induce a lot of outrage. I remember the last time I got really ticked off about a nerf in WoW, which was back in early Cataclysm. Back before there was a Looking For Raid tool, my guild, like so many others, was working its way through normal modes and had downed everything but the last two bosses in the tier. Then a massive nerf hit, which reduced boss health and damage by twenty percent as well as trivialising several of their mechanics. After that nerf, we downed the boss we'd been working on for weeks in two tries and then killed the last one, whom we had never even seen before, the same night. It was a major annoyance, for several reasons:

- The nerfs came with (relatively) short notice.
- They weren't applied to fine-tune the fights' difficulty, they were applied to make them irrelevant as progression and push people into the next tier.
- They affected a huge number of people (basically every raid guild that wasn't doing hard modes already).
- They were badly handled, going by the standards I set above, because they destroyed key fight mechanics on top of blanket health and damage reductions.
- On a personal level, my guild was robbed of the satisfaction of killing a boss we had been working on for weeks, as mechanics we had been practising were simply removed and our previous efforts were rendered completely pointless.

Now, how does this compare to what's happening with Nightmare Power? I think this scenario is very different. First off, we're being told about the eventual nerfing of the content before it's even been released in its original form. That's about as much notice as it's possible to get. We're also being told that it's only going to affect health and damage, and that mechanics will stay intact.

Finally, and I think this is an important point, it will only affect a minuscule amount of people since only a very small part of the player base participates in nightmare modes to begin with. I've seen the number "less than two percent" thrown around. If we assume that the game has about a million players, counting both subscribers and non-subscribers, that's maybe ten thousand people - and I'd also assume that "participation" in this case includes guilds like my own who set foot into NiM and managed to kill only a single boss before hitting a brick wall. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of people that can actually clear a nightmare mode within a reasonable time frame numbered only in the hundreds. Of those, a lot will probably manage to down Brontes in time to get the title anyway (because that's why they are doing nightmare modes in the first place, because they are that good), and what happens afterwards won't matter to them. There'll probably be a couple of guilds who'll get close and just miss out - and I do feel bad for them, but you'll excuse me for not starting a petition on their behalf.

There is another argument that JD has been bringing up a lot, and that's that of prestige. It will diminish those nightmare mode guilds' efforts if the unwashed masses can do an easier version of the same thing later! Now, I know many people who don't like this kind of argument to begin with, but personally I don't disagree. Of course we all want to feel like special snowflakes, and of course it's not fun if something we worked hard for is given to other people more easily.

However, prestige decays naturally over time anyway. Take the Warstalker title that you get for completing EC NiM in under two hours. A year ago, seeing someone with that title was a rare and impressive sight. These days? Meh. While EC NiM is still no pushover, five more levels and several tiers of new gear have made it vastly easier than it used to be, even if the operation never received a formal nerf. Keeping that in mind, the changes they are making with Nightmare Power are a good thing for hardcore raiders that like to show off: because for the first time, they'll get a reward that less skilled players won't also be able to get later.

Of course, all this rambling of mine doesn't answer the key question of why the hardest content in the game needs to be nerfed in the first place. It's supposed to be hard and inaccessible, right? We have story mode so everyone can see the content, and we have hard mode for people who want a bit of a challenge, why even have a nightmare mode if it's just going to get nerfed to be closer to hard mode? To be honest, I completely agree that it's not needed, but I suspect that it's a case of the devs suffering from a bit of vanity in regards to their work. "We thought up all these interesting mechanics and hardly anyone gets to see them! What a waste!" It's a bit of a contradiction in terms really, because the very definition of difficult content is that it's going to be exclusive and not seen by all. I'm not sure why this is suddenly an issue. Either way, I suspect that the introduction of Nightmare Power and its eventual removal are meant to get more people into nightmare modes once the initial race is over, just for the sake of someone doing them and getting to see the new mechanics.

I don't think it's something that's needed, but I also don't see it having much of a negative effect on most people, so I'm happy to wait and see how it plays out in practice.

EDIT: JD put some more of his thoughts on the subject into a blog post of his own.


Levelling My 10th Alt

I currently have nine characters at the level cap, five on Republic side and four on Empire. I thought that my little Shadow tank was going to be next to make it up there - and she still might - but the levelling duo of which she is a part has stalled as of late, so I'm not sure anymore. On the other hand I've been playing my baby Vanguard a fair bit recently and have been enjoying it. I liked the play style well enough when I levelled up my Powertech, and now I have the bonus of getting to play as my preferred faction as well. For a change of pace I've been levelling as Tactics, which is almost too good to be true in that I do great damage but can also slap on Ion Cell to get an almost guaranteed insta-pop for flashpoints and tank them with no problems (at least at my current level).

One of the criticisms that sometimes gets levelled at SWTOR is that when it comes to levelling by questing, the game is very linear. While you have some freedom in which missions to pick up and which ones to skip, there aren't really multiple levelling paths you can take - the order of planets is always the same and if you're doing your class story you'll have to visit each of them at least once. Picking up the same side missions every time you're there can get tedious even if you quite liked them the first time around, especially if it hasn't been very long since your last alt came through. Fortunately side missions aren't the only source of XP, and you can mix it up by simply doing completely different things. (OotiniCast had a story the other day about someone levelling a character from one to 55 purely by playing Galactic Starfighter. He didn't even pick an advanced class until he hit the level cap!)

Personally I've been breaking things up on my Vanguard like this: I do visit every planet, but I only do my class story in terms of solo quests. I do cruise around to explore though, gathering materials with my crew skills and picking up the local datacrons.

As I do this, I keep an eye on general chat for LFG requests for heroic missions. I suppose you could qualify those as side quests as well, but since many of them are so challenging and you never know what kind of group you're going to get, I haven't tired of repeating them yet. Doing a [Heroic 4] with a group that has no healing abilities or crowd control certainly holds your attention! Since almost all of them are shareable, I don't even have to worry about picking them up myself... just wait for someone to be looking for more for a level appropriate one and join in. They give great experience too - I love finishing a heroic bonus and seeing four different XP numbers pop up: one for my own quest completion and three for the other group members doing the same.

Between heroics, I queue for the occasional flashpoint. While they are fairly easy for the most part, they give some nice loot for your level, and if you pick up the Searching for Allies and Emerging Conflicts missions that go with them, each run nets a pretty good chunk of XP as well.

Alternatively, there is always PvP. While it's no secret that I enjoy PvPing at max level, it always delights me to see how different it can feel at a lower level. It's a bit like playing with a handicap, missing all kinds of abilities and cooldowns that you're used to, but in some ways that only makes the game more interesting. Scoring in Huttball is a real challenge for example, since nobody can stay alive under fire for very long, so you pretty much have to set up a pass chain or else. Unlike the PvP at max level, the lower level game also isn't nearly as gear sensitive, so you can always jump in wearing whatever quest gear you've just picked up. You can tell that players love this because often when I check to see how many warzones are running during the more quiet times of the day, there are more low level games than max level ones going on.

How are other people mixing things up while levelling?


So the Rumours are True: Housing Coming to SWTOR

I think it was about two months ago when I first started seeing comments about housing coming to SWTOR in the near future, based on a dataminer finding some references to housing while doing his... datamining thing. I wasn't sure what to think of that. On the one hand personal housing didn't really strike me as something that would fit very well into the game's world as it is... but on the other hand it would very much be in line with the developers' recent push towards adding more "sandboxy" features.

Well, it's more or less official: during a livestream yesterday, Eric Musco revealed a short housing teaser trailer to the crowd. It starts with a view of Coruscant's skycars, then zooms out until you can see that the viewer is inside a Coruscant apartment. There are a few brief shots of the character walking around in it, then she spreads her arms as the words "welcome home" appear on the screen.

Like free-form space combat, housing is one of those features that have been asked for virtually forever by a certain segment of the player base. Alas, I am once again not one of them. I can see the appeal to people who like to build and decorate, but if you're not part of that demographic, I'm not sure what the point of housing is to be honest. I don't think I've ever played an MMO that did have player housing actually, but I'm not sure what purpose it's supposed to serve in a theme park game other than as another instance to hang out in on your own. Something for private roleplaying sessions maybe, but generally I prefer to hang out on the fleet... where the people are. I haven't even bought most of the personal starship legacy upgrades because I spend so little time on my ship.

Speaking of our personal starships, as these were previously touted as being "kinda-sorta" like player housing, some people wonder why Bioware decided to now make housing a separate thing instead of allowing us to customise our ships some more. I can't find the official quote now, but basically they've previously said that since a lot of different places on the ship are used for class story and companion conversations, they can't let you edit those or it would mess things up. It's not a pretty answer, but an understandable one. Nonetheless I have to wonder what incentives we're going to have to spend time in our home instance. At least we need to board our starship every so often to travel, but why hang out in your apartment on Coruscant as opposed to somewhere else?

A lot of other questions come to mind too, such as how customisable the whole thing is going to be. From what I understand, housing systems across different MMOs vary pretty wildly, from some letting you build whatever you like from the ground up, and others only giving you a pre-made house where you can more or less arrange the furniture and that's it. Personally I expect SWTOR's system to be closer to the latter, because... it's just not that kind of game. That's not necessarily a criticism either, as not everyone likes to build their house from scratch, and having to do so can frankly be overwhelming to less crafty players (I think it would be to me to be honest). I just hope that we'll be able to purchase real estate on different planets. I bet a lot of people would love to live on Tatooine.

I wonder if we'll see changes to crew skills related to this. Typically, housing is the kind of feature that lends itself perfectly to making additions to crafting, because people love the idea of making their own furniture. I can't really see any of the current professions fit this role very well though. Synthweaving my own curtains? Erm, not really. I guess this would be a great opportunity to introduce a new crew skill, if Bioware is willing to go down that road.

Sadly I expect that their focus will be more on how to monetise this new system via the Cartel Market. Personally I expect basic housing to be available for in-game credits, plus maybe a handful of furniture options, but all the good stuff will probably come from the Cartel Market, particularly the Cartel Packs. Oh well, as long as the underlying system is good... I never have any trouble finding the contents of the packs on the GTN if I want any of them for myself.

Lastly, I can't help but wonder about companion involvement. The teaser video shows a droid in the apartment that looks like the Jedi knight's T7 companion. I suppose it would make sense for droids and love interests to hang out in my house, but unlike on my ship, I'd find it weird if my whole crew was on a never-ending visit. Some privacy, please! I suppose in my ideal world you'd be able to "invite" your companions into your house and unlike in the outside world they wouldn't follow you around all the time but maybe walk around and lounge on the sofa or something. Not sure how feasible that is, but I think that's how I'd like it to work.

You know, for someone who isn't particularly interested in housing, I'm still quite excited about this. It's a feature that definitely has the potential to surprise.


Operations Progression

This past Sunday my 8-man ops team finally downed Dread Master Brontes on hard. I say "finally" even though we didn't spend that many nights wiping on her, but whenever we did it felt a bit like we were struggling more than we should have - if that makes sense - wiping a lot to repeating the same mistakes over and over, until we finally found just the right way to handle each phase. I won the Volcanic Kell Drake pet that she drops as well, so double yay for me!

That leaves the Dread Council itself in Palace hardmode as the only encounter in this tier that we haven't downed yet. With how many different moving parts that fight has, I expected it to be a major pain in the butt, but after actually seeing it for the first time and judging by some comments I've seen from others, it might not turn out to be as bad as I thought. Seeing how nightmare mode Dread Fortress isn't scheduled to come out for another month, we might actually complete the current highest tier while it's still current! Off the top of my head, I can't think of a time I ever managed to do that before, either in SWTOR or back in my raiding days in WoW. I'm quite giddy at the thought.

Then again, the question of what the current highest tier is is a bit relative. Dread Fortress and Palace may well drop the best gear in the game right now, but my guild has only killed a single boss in TFB NiM, so that content continues to sit there, taunting us. The other night we went in with a bit of a hodgepodge group and almost got the Dread Guards down, but only almost. Scum nightmare is even worse: the last time we went in there, already wearing a lot of 78 gear, we tried to one-tank the first fight to maximise our damage output and still failed on both mechanics and dps. (Mind you, that one felt to me like we should be able to do it with a bit of practice, but still... it's a bit discouraging to fail on the very first boss of the previous tier once you outgear the fight, even on NiM.)

I'm not sure how happy I'd be to go back to TFB and Scum to work on the nightmare modes there now. I mean, they are great operations and I love them both, but TFB originally came out one and a half years ago. We learned it on story, we wiped on and later farmed it on hardmode, we spent two and a half months trying and failing to kill the Dread Guard on nightmare, until Oricon came out and brought blessed relief in the form of a much-needed change of scenery. Having three difficulty tiers to progress through within the same operation is just a bit tiring. I mean, the gear we have now should make it considerably easier, but we've already seen that the fights from that tier remain challenging even once you overgear them, so it would still be proper progression with lots of wiping.

From that point of view I'm not really looking forward to the release of Dread Fortress and Palace NiM either to be honest. We just don't have a history of being very successful in nightmare modes, and considering that we still struggle with the ones that we already outgear, I can't see us doing very well in nightmare mode Dread Fortress when it gets released in April. Here's hoping that Bioware will surprise us and give us a completely new operation sooner than expected... and for now, we still have a Dread Council to defeat.


ESO Beta Weekend Impressions

Time for my bi-annual completely off-topic post! I've never played an Elder Scrolls game in my life, so I had little interest in the upcoming online version, even more so since pseudo-realistic graphics generally aren't my cup of tea, as they tend to look kind of samey and boring even when they are well done. However, I have to admit that my interest was piqued after the game got some (relatively) bad press recently - I haven't seen anyone call it outright bad, but terms like "nothing special" and "bland" were certainly thrown around a lot. The reason I find this intriguing is that pretty much every new major MMO release since I've been following these things was initially hailed as the next big thing by the gaming press - just to turn out not to be. So what does this mean for a game that isn't getting hyped up to eleven pre-release? When a friend sent me an invite code for this week's ESO beta weekend, I decided to find out for myself.

Knowing absolutely nothing about Elder Scrolls lore and not finding the character creation screen very informative when it came to races, I decided to make a cat person simply because I like cat people. I chose the templar class because after skimming the different descriptions that one seemed to be the only one capable of healing. It made no sense for me to choose a healer since I was going to play on my own and wasn't going to have anyone to heal, but I just like being a healer anyway, ok? When it came to customising my character's looks, I was given a lot of options involving sliders, most of which didn't seem to do much. I was however amused that butt size was one of the things I could change, and that the slider for it was called "posterior dimensions". I was also given the option to add some facial hair to my female cat person, which I thought was quite novel, though I just went with a mohawk in the end.

Many things have been written about the "tutorial level" where you wake up in a prison cell, so I'll just say that it was indeed pretty boring. There was a lot of talking going on about how I was somehow important, and other people were important, but since I had absolutely no clue what any of it was about I found it hard to care. However, even considering that I was taking my time and stumbling around cluelessly like a noob, that part of the game didn't take very long, and I soon found myself released into the overworld, waking up on a tropical island.

The only thing wrong with this picture is the "please stab me here" hole in her armour.

This is where things got interesting. I got given a quest to "investigate" several areas, and soon found myself getting distracted. Due to an extremely minimalistic UI and no mini-map, the game is very immersive. (I don't know if there's an option to change that, but at a glance I couldn't even tell other players and NPCs apart, everything just melded together visually.) I'm the kind of person who usually has her eyes pretty much glued to the mini-map - and in a way that makes me sad because I know that I miss out by not paying more attention to my surroundings, but I tend to get lost easily and the mini-map is usually my anchor. Well, ESO simply gave me no choice in the matter, and while there is a compass on top of the screen as well as regular maps to look at, I found myself flailing around a lot and running in the wrong direction quite frequently. But you know what? I didn't mind. I enjoyed gathering crafting materials wherever I found them and generally picking up everything and anything that wasn't nailed down. I could even catch butterflies to use as fishing bait! Is there anything more appropriate than a cat person catching butterflies?

I've seen other people make this comparison already but I also found it to be true that the questing reminded me a bit of Vanilla WoW. Sure, you got a quest or two, and there are markers on the map, but they are comparatively low key, stuff on the ground doesn't sparkle, and you spend a lot of time running back and forth - but you don't mind, because it feels like there are interesting things to find around every corner anyway. In one case I found myself stopping in the middle of a rescue quest involving a horrible thunderstorm to start fishing - because I hadn't done it before and there was a fishing hole right there, so why not?

Of course there are differences to Vanilla WoW questing, such as everything being fully voiced and some quests actually offering you choices. The voice acting is actually pretty well-done too... though it does feel a bit redundant when you have the whole text right there to read anyway, and I have to admit that I clicked through without waiting for the voiceover to finish whenever I had finished reading (though I tried to not interrupt people mid-sentence; that grates on me for some reason). The NPCs aren't as expressive as SWTOR's, but much better than Neverwinter's dead-eyed quest givers. The ability to make choices about the outcome on some of the missions was a pleasant surprise for me as well, since I didn't actually expect it. And it's interesting that not a single quest was about "killing ten rats" or anything like it, with a heavy focus on talking to people instead. However, clearly none of this is anything "special" in a new MMO these days... [/sarcasm]

Another thing I previously saw criticised more than once was the combat not feeling "right". I don't have much of a point of reference, but I did indeed struggle a bit early on because I felt like I wasn't getting good feedback in response to my mouse-clicks, in the sense that I couldn't tell whether it made any difference whether I mashed my buttons like crazy or clicked them more slowly. However, as time went on I felt like I got to understand the rhythm of the game better and fights started to go more smoothly... except for the interrupt mechanic, which I hardly ever got to work for some reason. I was also pleasantly surprised that the combat, while avoiding the classic hotbar model, didn't feel too "action-y" (which I personally don't like). While some enemies had attacks that could be dodged, others could simply be shut down by blocking and interrupting (whenever I got it to work), which I found vastly preferable.

The game also seemed pretty polished already, apart from the fact that it started me off with a screen that said "intro cinematic placeholder". I only really ran into two kinds of bugs, one of which caused my UI to get stuck in the "zoomed in" mode you see when you talk to an NPC or craft something, and which required me to relog to fix it.  The other was that pressing E (the default "interact with this" key) on certain lootable chests didn't actually do anything. I'd consider both of these quite minor, though the UI error happened quite frequently and forced me to relog a lot.

I stopped after I reached level five and made it off the island, not because I wasn't enjoying myself, but because I didn't want to invest too much time in a beta that's just going to get wiped anyway. I currently don't see myself buying the game at launch, simply because I already have more than enough on my plate when it comes to MMOs - however I definitely could see myself playing it at some point if I manage to find some time in my schedule for a secondary MMO (and if I can get someone else to play with me).

After five levels spent on my own I obviously have no idea how the game holds up in many areas that are very important to an MMO's longevity: social features, endgame and so on - but I would say that what I've seen in those first couple of levels was interesting enough to justify giving it a try at least (even more so since from everything I've heard, the game only opens up and becomes even more "explorable" as you go up in levels).