26/06/2016

Dark vs. Light Event - Confused As Always

While the people of my chosen home country of nearly seven years were busy making facepalm-inducing decisions, Bioware announced the details of their new "dark vs. light" event which starts this Tuesday and was already teased at a developer stream several weeks ago.

Apparently a large chunk of the community already hates it. "Hm, I wonder how long it will take until I see someone refer to the event as 'a slap in the face'," I wondered, opened a forum thread about it and bam - right on cue, there it was, in the very first post. Based on the amount of times I've seen that phrase get repeated since then, spotting it would make for a fun drinking game.

I'm honestly kind of surprised by how overwhelmingly negative the reaction has been. One major gripe seems to be that it's not actual new content but I don't really understand what people expected based on the previous hints. When I heard that there was going to be a light vs. dark event, something centred on a particular mechanic of the game, I fully expected it to also be a "mechanical" event that simply encourages you to replay existing content, similar to a double XP weekend.

The other major gripe seems to be that credit isn't rewarded retroactively, and I'll admit that this also annoyed me at first when I first read it, but after thinking about it for a little while it quickly became evident that if existing characters did count, the event would actually be a non-event for me, as I've already done everything that it asks you do to - I'd simply have nothing to do and get a bunch of free crap in the mail. Yeah, I definitely need more of that...

That's not to say that I think there's nothing to criticise, as I said I'm just surprised by the sheer force of the negativity as well as by the things people focus on. My own overall impression of the event can probably be summed up as "well-intended but confused" - something that pretty much applies to a lot of things that Bioware has done with SWTOR over the years.

I think the basic idea of having an event centred around the concept of light and dark side decisions sounded great. The alignment system is one of SWTOR's unique selling points and bringing that to the foreground for a while it not a bad idea. I also like the idea of a one-time event focused on a certain game-mechanic. It gives the whole thing a touch of "once in a lifetime, be there or be square" feeling that is hard to find in MMOs these days ever since there has been so much backlash about limited time content (not just in SWTOR, but in other games as well - it's just not "convenient").

But the execution comes across as weird right away. For example making it competitive seems counter-intuitive to the very nature of the game. Light and dark side decisions are tied to the story - something you want to take your time to enjoy. However, if you really wanted to add towards your preferred side's tally as much as possible, you'd probably be better off space-barring through content as quickly as you can, always making the decision associated with the side you want to support, regardless of roleplaying considerations, which is hardly fun.

Secondly, looking at the many requirements to earn all the possible rewards that are available from this event, most of them actually have nothing to do with alignment whatsoever. It's more about levelling another bunch of alts and going through all the content available in the game. There's some obvious dissonance there.


It's seems that the only thing that's really dark vs. light is the question of which of the two possible companions will be the penultimate reward - either a light-side Chiss Sentinel or a dark-side Zabrak Assassin. I'd go for the Sentinel in a heartbeat, simply because of her unusual looks. I don't really care if it makes sense lore-wise; people have been able to create any class as any species for ages anyway. I also suspect that Bioware didn't put nearly that much thought into their design as people might hope and simply went with something like: "Let's make the light-side one blue and the dark-side one red." The Zabrak looks a lot like one of my inquisitors actually - having her as a companion would just be weird.

All that said, I'm definitely planning on rolling up a couple of characters to give this event a shot. If I enjoy it, I'll keep working my way towards the higher tiers, but if I don't... well, then I won't. I don't feel that this event is targeted at players like me and I'm OK with that. Instead it seems to be intended mostly for the new and returning players that came in with KotFE but may not have engaged with the game all that much beyond the new story. We'll see whether it works.

Initially I was worried about character slots because of the requirement to roll up multiple new toons to qualify for several of the rewards, but thankfully I was reminded that the overall character limit for subscribers was increased to 40 some time ago and I'm nowhere near that, I'll just have to buy some additional character slots. I wouldn't have fancied rolling all those extra characters on a new server, getting character- or legacy-bound rewards in a place where I'm unlikely to spend much time in the long term and where I would be lacking the support network of an established legacy and a friendly guild.

I wonder which of the achievement tiers will turn out to be "too much" for me. Many are balking at the requirement to get eight new characters to 50, but to me that one doesn't actually sound that bad as there are no limitations on how you do it and levelling is super quick these days anyway. So you could level purely through flashpoints for example and get that requirement done at the same time. I have to admit that what sounds most off-putting to me right now is actually the thought of having to redo Shadow of Revan and KotFE yet again, as I was only just talking about how that can feel like a bit of a chore. But we'll see. I'm definitely up for giving it a go, and so are a few of my guildies.

24/06/2016

Flashpoint Friday: The False Emperor

In this week's installment of Flashpoint Friday we're going to look at the flashpoint that "finished up" the game's story as far as it was released at launch. I'm of course talking about (dun dun dunnn)... False Emperor.

  
General Facts

False Emperor has been in game since launch, serving as the grand finale for the game's non class-specific world storyline, which started with the regular missions on Ilum and continued throughout the flashpoint Battle of Ilum, which I already talked about.

False Emperor was originally designed for levels 48-50 and came with a hardmode at launch in which the last boss dropped a Columi (first raid tier) chest piece, which caused people to farm it like mad back in the day. A solo mode to see the story was added in 4.0. The base version is now tactical (role- and level-neutral), which must really confuse people who end up in there at level 15.

Story (spoilers)

A short reminder of the story so far: While Republic and Empire are fighting over the ice planet Ilum, which provides valuable crystals that can be used for the production of stealth generators, Darth Malgus declares himself the Emperor of a "new" Empire that embraces alien diversity and goes up against both Republic and Empire at once. After stealing one of the stealth ships from his fleet, a strike team boards his cloaked space station to cut off the snake's head.

This is where the flashpoint starts off, with either Cole Cantarus (for Pubs) or General Hesker (for Imps) flying you there. The Emperor's space station is the same one Jedi knight players encounter during their class story, only bigger. After a lot of fairly nondescript fights you have to kill HK-47 again, whom Malgus had apparently rebuilt after that whole thing in the Foundry. He's defending an Anomid scientist called Arkis Wode, who gives you big lip initially but panics as soon as all his guards are taken out. You can show your alignment by either letting him live so he'll turn the station's weapons against Malgus' own fleet, or shooting him in the face, in which case he'll call out a last warning to Malgus before he dies.


Finally, you face down Malgus himself, who quickly activates the station's self-destruct sequence. (Who keeps building self-destructs into everything anyway?) There is no option for reconciliation, even if you kind of agree with his stance on aliens in the Empire at least. Once he's defeated, you take his stuff and flee the station as it's breaking apart at the seams.

Fights

Malgus' space station is filled with lots of droids and some aliens, similar to the trenches of Ilum in Battle of Ilum. Like in that flashpoint, there are a lot of voice-overs going on about the strengths of this "new Empire", even as you go around killing everyone. It's also worth mentioning that while there are still a lot of enemies to fight, there used to be a lot more of them until the flashpoint was "thinned out" somewhat in later patches. The main possible exception to this is the very first pull, which is still huge and has sent many a pugger to their death over the years.

About half the boss fights are nothing to write home about: There's the Trandoshan with the red circle around him, the two droids who become temporarily immune to damage one at a time and the mini-boss that does a spin attack. However, there are also some more interesting encounters:

Bounty hunter Jindo Krey is a bit of a Boba Fett lookalike - that alone would be enough to make him cool, but he also calls on his ship during the fight to shoot you, which you in turn have to repel by using some conveniently located nearby cannons. In its original incarnation, the ship could also move sideways so that you actually had to make sure you used the right one of the three cannons to shoot it down, but apparently this was considered too challenging for puggers...

HK isn't really that interesting except for being HK and liking to brutally knock down people who charge him with a leap, a mechanic that just seems pointlessly cruel.

The Sith Entity bonus boss which consists of three different  targets that periodically vanish and reappear is also moderatlely interesting and used to have a reputation for having an unforgivingly harsh enrage timer on hardmode back in the day.

The undisputed crown jewel of the instance is however the encounter with Darth Malgus, which is a fantastic example of how you can give a fight a cinematic quality while also keeping it engaging for the players. Aside from a massive knockback that you need to avoid by tanking him near the stairs or else you'll go flying down the nearest chasm, Malgus doesn't have that many regular interesting abilities, however he cycles through all the group members (if given enough time) to "fill their minds with doubt" until he forces them to face him alone while the rest of the group is stunned. This isn't that interesting these days, but at launch he hit hard enough that dps players in particular had to kite him during that phase, usually while the rest of their stunned group cheered them on. A couple of times he also tries to cast an insta-wipe mechanic called "Unlimited Power", which absolutely needs to be interrupted (or needed to be... not actually sure how deadly it is these days as I haven't seen it go off in a while).

The memorable finale of the fight however used to be the fact that Malgus became invulnerable once he reached a certain percentage of health and had to be knocked down the aforementioned chasm to be killed, Darth Vader vs. Palapatine style. This required multiple knockbacks to be timed just right, which could be quite challenging for most groups. Nonetheless I was still very sad when this mechanic was removed as part of a round of nerfs. These days Malgus just falls over dead at the end like any other boss, which I still think is sad. That knockback mechanic could have been made more manageable without removing it entirely.


Conclusion

False Emperor was certainly a memorable end to the story of Darth Malgus. Even though it was a shame that he was killed off so early in the game, he at least got a suitably epic send-off initially - plus the fact that you didn't actually see his body left an avenue for a potential future return, though I think it's safe to consider that particular door closed by now.

That said, the flashpoint as a whole wasn't exactly an unmitigated success. The interior of the space station isn't particularly exciting except for the view of the final throne room. People hated how long and filled with trash it was. And from a story point of view it honestly kind of sucked having to kill off Malgus as an Empire player even if you agreed with many of his points. I already mentioned in my Battle of Ilum post that he's basically not a very convincing betrayer in the sense that players might not necessarily disagree with him enough to want to kill him. Plus there's the whole "what is this I don't even" factor if you don't do the planetary quest line and the flashpoints in the right order.

That said, I'm still very fond of False Emperor almost for the Malgus fight alone, because it really is (was) that good. Also, as Calphy pointed out in his post about flashpoint favourites, considering its brief life, Malgus' new Empire was actually very influential in terms of the overall storyline, as the Makeb arc sees the Empire softening its stance on aliens in the aftermath of Ilum, which always struck me as a little odd. Not that I'm complaining really, but I would have thought that the last thing you do after eliminating someone as a betrayer and heretic would be to adopt some of his policies.

21/06/2016

Still Operational

I haven't written about operations for a while, even though I still run them at least once a week. The more cynical among my readers might say that there's nothing to talk about because Bioware hasn't released a new operation in over a year and hasn't even hinted at any future plans to do so. However, my ops posts have rarely been about content releases and more about progression anyway. And despite of the general doom-and-glooming going on in regards to ops, my guild continues to be entertained well enough by them. Sure, we've had some old hands hang up their hats not long ago, but we've also had fresh, enthusiastic recruits, so things have evened out. Churn is always a reality for guilds, and we haven't really experienced any more of it than in previous years.


I've mentioned before that I've been kind of surprised by how little I actually seem to mind having to re-learn bosses that we previously downed when they were easier (because we could outlevel them by 5-10 levels). It's just fun to hang out with my guildies, and spending our time re-learning how to beat Thrasher on nightmare mode is as good an excuse to do so as any. What I do miss though is the excitement of a new boss kill, because that's definitely not present in quite the same way anymore. No achievement pop-ups, no useful gear drops for my main, no glowing pride that makes me want to make a video of the boss kill... because I probably made one months or even years ago already.

I think the main thing that keeps us going right now is the sheer wealth of fights we still have to "re-do" or even beat for the first time. 4.0's re-tuning has caused some odd shifts in difficulty as well.

Eternity Vault/Karagga's Palace: Not much news to report here - still the easiest ops by far and very much worth a visit when either one is the featured hardmode of the week and can be farmed for easy 224 loot.

Explosive Conflict: This place was such a pain in the butt on NiM when it was current content, and this experience has largely been re-created in 4.0. However, in one of the aforementioned difficulty shifts, the dps check for Firebrand and Stormcaller has become ridiculously intense now. It used to be that if you could kill Zorn and Toth you were also fine for the tanks in terms of dps, but this is no longer the case. Our guild's second group has beaten the fight, but even they admit that it's incredibly hard and that they've had to rely on "cheese tactics" such as using a Guardian tank's saber reflect for insane extra damage. My own group has sort of shied away from even trying it again because we are usually so far behind on dps that we don't even hit the enrage but rather end up with mechanics overlapping in bad ways before we've even hit the first defensive measures phase.

Terror from Beyond: We've had some goes at the second encounter on NiM and in somewhat of an inverse situation of the above, the Dread Guards don't seem nearly as much of a road block now as they used to be. However, I think we still kind of remember those days all too well and it makes us a bit timid when it comes to investing progression time here. Plus, even if we got them down we'd then have to face Operator next, who is quite a pain on NiM as well.


Scum and Villainy: This op seems considerably easier on NiM than it was in its original incarnation, because I remember back then we couldn't even down the first boss until nearly a year after its release, by which time we were overgearing the place by several tiers. This time however we are actually already up to working on the Cartel Warlords... whenever we can actually get to them in any given week, because killing everything leading up to them - while proven to be within our capabilities - is still far from smooth sailing. I'm not too hopeful for Styrak on NiM though, considering that we sometimes still run into the enrage even on hardmode when people aren't fully on the ball.

Dread Fortress: There's something about second bosses, because once again few of us really seem to have the stomach to work on Draxus - I can't actually comment on his post-4.0 difficulty, but I do remember all too well how much of a pain he used to be at level 55. The way the fight is split into waves that require people to learn a perfect rotation of interrupts while splitting their damage just right is simply super annoying. Having to wipe every time a single person messed up a single interrupt is a special kind of tedium.

Dread Palace: Sadly, this place has been a complete no-go for us as the very first boss hits so hard now that our tanks go squish in the blink of an eye. There was some talk about having them re-gear in a way that's otherwise sub-optimal to increase their endurance but in practice it's just ended up being another fight that we've postponed until a later date.

Ravagers: The two 3.0 operations at least are the one place where we can do "real" progression as I had only got the first two bosses in Ravagers down on hardmode during the Shadow of Revan patch cycle. Torque HM was a genuine progression kill for me in 4.0, but most of my group had already got it before KotFE's release so nobody felt like having a big celebration. Now nobody wants to spend time on Master and Blaster because it's supposed to be oh so hard and will take us forever to learn.


Temple of Sacrifice: In another example of strange re-tuning, the Revanite Commanders, who gave us massive trouble pre-KotFE, were apparently nerfed in some manner so that they are now ridiculously easy compared to the fight's previous difficulty level. We used to wipe and wipe and wipe on these guys... but when we first went to ToS HM after 4.0, we one-shot them, and that with several people in the group who hadn't even attempted the fight before. My one and only piece of genuine progression since 4.0 and it was depressingly anti-climatic. This of course leaves us with nothing but Revan himself in this operation, who is supposed to be the hardest fight in the entire game, so... probably not our best avenue of progression when looking at all the other areas in which we still fall short.

While we are certainly not bored, I'm still hopeful that Bioware will eventually decide to add more operations to the game again - and hopefully do better at making them fun than they did with the last couple, whose enjoyment (for me anyway) suffered a bit due to nonsensical circle mechanics and bad difficulty tuning.

19/06/2016

Bringing Up a Bounty Hunter


Before I write about chapter thirteen and fourteen of Knights of the Fallen Empire in detail, I really wanted to get one of my bounty hunters into KotFE because both chapters see the return of a bounty hunter companion as part of the main storyline. I've taken to watching YouTube videos of certain setups that I'm unlikely to ever experience myself (e.g. male characters reuniting with a companion love interest), but there are other variations of the story that I definitely do want to see for myself.

So I picked up the only one of my two Powertechs that had completed Shadow of Revan and took her through Ziost. I always kind of struggle with replaying Ziost because while I do think it tells a valuable part of the story and features some interesting characters, I also find the linearity kind of tedious. I eventually decided to overcome my desire for completionism and left out the side quests this time, which sped things up considerably.

I hadn't had very high expectations for playing through Ziost as a bounty hunter, as the beginning of the Emperor's involvement sort of marks the point where things get a bit awkward for non-Force users. I needn't have worried though and I have to give credit where credit is due: There were some pretty good bounty hunter-specific lines in there. Like how the Emperor wouldn't be a good employer because he wants so many people dead that he'd probably ask for a bulk discount...

I also realised to my delight that I had never actually finished Gault's companion story on this character, which was convenient as I'd really wanted a refresher on what exactly it tells us about his relationship with Hylo Visz. Turns out that it actually explains why she doesn't quite look her true age: She was trapped in a stasis chamber on Belsavis for a while until Gault ended up rescuing her. The story also ends with Hylo taking him back (they hadn't been on good terms for a while), though I'm not sure if that can vary depending on whether you encouraged the whole endeavour or not. From a bounty hunter's view, the setup for chapter thirteen should make a whole lot more sense in any case.

Sadly, taking yet another character through KotFE feels a bit like a chore (this is my fifth one). There are parts I genuinely want to see from a different perspective, but there is a lot to content to get through that doesn't really vary that much. It took some mental effort to finally press that button to start the expansion, as it kind of locks me into several hours of single player gameplay when I'd rather be doing something with my guildies. Once I was actually in, I quite enjoyed replaying the first couple of chapters, which still make plenty of references to your past. I was quite amused when I got the option to sass Arcann in chapter one by saying that he should either offer me a job or shut up. From around chapter four onwards though, things start to get a bit samey as the focus is more on developing relationships with your new companions, with limited options to truly change the direction of events. Still got another five chapters or so to go before I get to the (to me) interesting part...

I suppose the one thing I can look forward to in the meantime is seeing how well the KotFE story adjusts to a truly neutral character that takes light and dark side choices in a somewhat unpredictable pattern. For example it was clear to me that my bounty hunter would be enough of an opportunist to kneel to Valkorion, however she's also proud enough of her abilities that she keeps rejecting his help in combat. I also found it interesting that when I met former sergeant Ralo again in chapter six, he didn't like my character even though she had gone to save the trapped soldiers in chapter one - apparently setting the ship to ramming speed and not giving people enough time to get to the escape pods was bad enough to cancel out that good deed. It's kind of heart-breaking how many little variations there are that most people are unlikely to ever see simply because it requires too much repetition of sections that don't really change.

15/06/2016

3 Personal but Probably Uncommon PvP Peeves

I think even those of us who love to PvP can agree that it can also be a source of annoyance. Common issues that I see cited frequently are people insulting their team members when things go badly (while frequently playing terribly themselves) or team mates not communicating when they need help. While I generally do agree that those things are annoying, I've also largely become immune to really letting them get to me. For me, it's some very different and probably slightly unusual matters that make me want to shout at my screen. I suspect that they have a lot to do with me playing pretty much exclusively as a healer. Let me tell you about this healer's pet peeves in PvP:


Number 3: Timid damage dealers

Back during my heyday with World of Warcraft, I went through a phase of doing 2v2 arenas with a friend. One thing I noticed early on was that the very start of the match was actually already a pretty good indicator of what was going to happen next: If they charged us before we charged them, we were likely to lose.

I continue to observe this in group PvP to this day, though I'm not sure which way the causation goes. Are better players just more confident and therefore more likely to charge in first? Or is taking the initiative and forcing an otherwise equally strong opponent on the defensive right away that much of a tide-turner?

Either way it drives me absolutely bonkers when I end up on a team that seems to be terminally afraid of making the first move. It's particularly bad in arenas, where getting everything just right is even more important. Whenever I end up on Corellia Square and my team jumps down just to immediately hide behind the nearest shipping container, it makes me want to scream. You're not setting up some sort of clever ambush here, guys, they know we're here! Though it can get vaguely amusing when the enemy team suffers from the same lack of confidence and everyone spends the entire first minute of the match just standing around, waiting for the other team to move first.

It can be annoying in regular warzones too though. As a healer, my ideal position is somewhere behind everyone else, just out of range of the enemy, healing up the damage my team is taking. Yet what happens in all too many games I'm in? We run towards, say, the southern bunker in Novare Coast together, but just before we get there, people to the left and right of me suddenly come to a screeching halt - "Don't want to get hit first!" - and suddenly I couldn't be any more exposed to the enemy if I tried. In Ancient Hypergates in particular this has become so prevalent that I sometimes completely give up on getting any support with the attack in mid, hit Hold the Line and charge the enemy on my own... which if nothing else usually earns me at least a brief moment of visible confusion on their part.

On the flip side, I absolutely adore damage dealers who are willing to make that push (usually Guardians or Sentinels) and will go out of my way to chase after them if they run out of healing range, because it's their daring and determination to hunt down the enemy healers at the back that can make all the difference when it comes to forcing the enemy away from an objective.

Number 2: People who complain about lack of calls

I suspect that this is the one that people might find the most surprising, considering that team mates not calling for help when they need it is one of the more common annoyances that players experience. Surely someone criticising such a person has a valid grievance?

Well, yes and no. Of course I'd prefer it if people made more of an effort to communicate. But the thing is, most of the time people don't need to type "help, I'm under attack" for their team mates to be able to know this. You see, there is this neat little thing called the operations frames, which show your entire team's health bars. So if Bob went off to guard the western turret at the start, and suddenly Bob's health starts dropping... something is wrong, whether he says anything or not. I get that if you're not a healer, your eyes aren't as glued to other people's health bars as mine are. But that's no excuse to not take a quick look every now and then.

Basically, whenever I see someone get savage because a player who was guarding a node didn't call for help and died, all I hear is: "Hello, I am unable to pay attention to more than one thing at a time and like to blame this failure on others!"


Not that I never get distracted by things like people with fascinating (guild) names...

Number 1: "Don't we have any healers?"

Usually asked while me and at least one other healer are working our butts off, desperately trying to keep people alive in the face of overwhelming odds while getting murdered by the enemy melee. Anyone asking this instantly drops to the very bottom of my priority list because they clearly have no awareness of what's going on around them and can't be a player worth keeping alive above others.

I suspect that at least some of those who ask this question are actively trying to get a rise out of the healers who they know very well are dying all around them, but sadly knowing this doesn't automatically make me immune to being aggravated by it anyway. It's just so deeply insulting - it doesn't just suggest that we're doing a bad job, it implies that we're so bad at what we're doing that it's not even noticeable that we exist.

Anyway, you should rarely if ever have to ask whether there are any healers on your team anyway, because once again the operations frames are your friend. Check your team's class composition at the start - there are exactly six advanced classes out of the total of sixteen that are able to heal. Any Sages/Sorcerers, Commandos/Mercenaries, Scoundrels/Operatives in the group? They might be healers. Sometimes the buffs on them can help; for example it's usually only healing Mercs or Mandos that use Combat Support Cell/Cylinder. At max level you can also inspect them and most people will be wearing something with a set bonus from which you can deduce where their specialisation lies.

More than anything though, healers usually try to make themselves known anyway. A bit like puppies, we just want to be loved. Admittedly, few will start off a warzone by saying "I'm a healer" but that's because such directness is considered somewhat crass (what's next, demanding a guard?!). But there are usually plenty of non-verbal cues: the Sage spamming Salvation in the starting zone, the Commando putting probes on everyone, the Scoundrel rotating heals over time on everyone before the match has even started.

We're not asking for a freaking medal. Just a bit of acknowledgement that we're not trying any less hard than you are.

13/06/2016

NBI: Five Sources of Inspiration

This month is NBI month - if you don't know what that means, you can head over to Rav's blog here and read a bit about it. The short version is that NBI stands for "Newbie Blogger Initiative" and is a time to encourage people who've been thinking about starting a blog to do so and to give newbie bloggers who've already made the jump useful advice and an opportunity to promote their writing. In the spirit of the latter, one of my guildies has started a little blog project where he makes news stories out of NPC background conversations - check out the SWTOR Journalist.

I've previously also used the NBI to dish out unpopular advice, such as that it's perfectly OK to have a blog that limits itself to a very narrow subject, such as a single MMO. I thought this time I'd take the opportunity to talk a bit about how to find things to write about when your blog has a narrow focus, though some of this can definitely be applied to multi-gaming blogs as well. Incidentally, I don't actually think that giving yourself the option to write about anything necessarily makes it any easier to come up with things to write about. Science has shown that too much choice can be crippling, as I'm sure many gamers with Steam libraries full of unplayed games know all too well. Anyway, on to my suggestions for what to write about when you're struggling for inspiration:

1. What you've been doing in game

I would've thought that this would be the first and most obvious thing on anyone's mind when they start an MMO blog in particular, yet I continue to be surprised by the amount of gaming blogs I see that hardly ever talk about what their writers have actually been up to in terms of gaming. I suspect that some might be afraid that mere descriptions of their latest online adventures might sound too mundane or even boring, but part of the fun of practising your writing skills is making the mundane sound exciting. Making your way to a new zone can turn into an adventure of exploration and a bad pug run can become an epic tale of overcoming adversity.

Talking about what you've been playing also helps your readers relate to you ("man, that PvP match she describes sounds just as bad as the one I had last week..."), shows that you're actively engaged with the game and gives you credibility. Like in all walks of life, you sometimes run into people who enjoy passing themselves off as absolute experts on a game (and its many design flaws, usually) even though they've barely played it, if at all. By writing about what you've been playing, you show that this is not you. And this sort of leads us nicely to...

2. Thoughts and Analysis

Point one posts are relatively superficial, but under point two we can go a little deeper. What does it all mean? You look at what you've been doing in game and pick it apart. Which bits did you enjoy? What could use improvement? Why? How does it make you feel? There are so many questions to ask, and I think this is one of the parts that many MMO bloggers enjoy the most - getting to play armchair developer and feeling all insightful. It's all too easy to run out of inspiration for these though - which is why I feel they tie in extremely well with posts from the first category, because once you've written down what you've been doing, you can always analyse that.

3. What's new in game?

I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks for many a gaming blogger are times when they don't actually play their favourite game(s) very much, whether this is due to burnout or simple lack of free time. But you can still continue writing!

One of the nice things about MMOs is that they are always receiving updates and that they involve so many different people that there is always something to talk about if you look hard enough. When's the next patch supposed to come out and what new features will it introduce? Have the developers made some interesting statement on the official website or in a livestream? What about the community? Maybe a new fan site has opened up or an old one closed? What about that big roleplaying event that's coming up? If you have even a little time to do things like read official forums and fan sites, you should still find plenty of material to share and have an opinion on.

4. Past and Future

If you don't even have the energy to read up on what's currently happening in game, you can always resort to wallowing in nostalgia or daydreaming about the future. Admittedly the former requires the game to have been around for a while and you to have played it for about as long, but there are no real limits on the latter. Remember back in the day when we had to walk everywhere? Look how far we've come in terms of convenience! Anyone remember back when [class] didn't have [iconic ability]? Wouldn't it be great if we could do [thing]? I can't wait for the day when they introduce [feature]!

5. Make your own theme

This last point isn't really connected to any of the previous ones but is more about making your own rules for your blog - self-imposed structures can be a great help when it comes to coming up with things to post about. For example you can pick one activity that you really, really love doing in game and that you could talk about all day... and actually allow yourself to talk about it regularly. If you love taking screenshots, you could have a "Screenshot Saturday" where you post some screenshots that you took that week and talk about them, every week if you like. Instantly recyclable post idea! My Flashpoint Friday series is pretty much the same thing and has provided me with a regular topic of discussion once every two weeks for over nine months now.

Got any other great sources of inspiration to share for those days when you kind of want to make a blog post but it's not quite coming to you naturally? Feel free to leave them in the comments! If you don't have your own blog, maybe you can share what you'd like to see people write about more often instead.

10/06/2016

Flashpoint Friday: Depths of Manaan

In today's Flashpoint Friday I'd like to talk about a flashpoint that I realised I haven't actually done very often (my achievement panel counts 13 full tactical runs and 6 on hardmode). RNG probably has more to do with this than anything else, but it's still a shame - because the more I thought about it, the more I realised that Depths of Manaan is pretty damn awesome.


General Facts

Depths of Manaan forms the second part of the Forged Alliances story arc that leads/led up to the Shadow of Revan expansion and is now labelled in game as "Shadow of Revan: Prelude". It was released as a max-level (then 55) tactical flashpoint in patch 2.9, which otherwise focused on Galactic Strongholds, in August 2014 and continued the story that had started with Assault on Tython and Korriban Incursion. A solo and hardmode version were added in 3.0 and since 4.0 it's a tactical accessible from level 15 onwards.

Depths of Manaan takes places on the planet Manaan (duh), which was literally introduced just to hold the entrance to this flashpoint. It's still nice that you can travel there at any time though - it means that you can commit suicide by drowning in a game where otherwise no body of water ever goes deeper than up to your knees! One can also always hope that Bioware will find a reason to return to the planet and add some more content to it one day.

Fights

Depths of Manaan takes place in a research facility staffed by droids and Selkaths. Some of the latter are Force users as well! While none of the trash is particularly challenging, it's varied enough and there isn't really enough of it for it to ever get boring. The first half of the flashpoint is also stuffed with kolto barrels, which you can blow up to heal yourself and work towards an achievement that awards a legacy title. I remember when this first came out, every run was a mad dash towards the nearest barrels as they aren't present in solo mode and the achievement only counts barrels that you pop personally. More recently however it always seems like I'm the only one who's interested in them (I'm on 334 out of 500) - has everyone else already got the achievement or am I surrounded by newer players who simply don't know about it?


There are three boss fights in Depths of Manaan (plus one bonus boss on hardmode) and every single one of them is fun and interesting. First there is security chief Sairisi, who is accompanied by two riot suppression droids that shield him. You need to first damage the droids to get them to retract their shields to be able to attack the boss, all the while dodging red stuff on the floor and getting knocked about. The real kicker however is the hardmode mechanic that causes the droids to regenerate health and re-shield Sairisi after a while, which requires you to split your damage and take them down roughly at the same time or they'll effectively "take turns" healing up and shielding the boss, keeping him invulnerable permanently. What fun that is in a pug, and I'm only partially joking!

Next up we have the infamous Ortuno, one of the few non-ops bosses in the game with a mechanic that is guaranteed to kill you if you mess it up. Throughout the fight he keeps dropping puddles of water on the floor, and every so often he summons a sort of lightning storm that does AoE damage to everyone regardless of what you do, but if you also happen to stand in a water puddle at the time you die almost instantly. Even without the lightning the puddles are bad for you though, because standing in them causes you to periodically get stunned by Ortuno's attacks. Oh, and did I mention yet that he also summons two silver adds after each lightning phase and hits like a truck? Seriously, what's not to like about this guy?

The last boss, a cyborg Selkath called Stivastin comes with a shield that absorbs a huge chunk of damage and can only be broken by leading him under the spouts of flame that periodically erupt from the ceiling. There are also adds and a kick mechanic that messes with the aggro table. Funnily enough I remember this boss being super annoying on solo mode because the Jesus droid would always taunt him, making it impossible to lead him towards the flames to pop his shield. At the same time, the droid still did enough damage that he would get the boss down in time despite of the shield, but it was slow and boring. Interestingly, when I did a solo mode run before writing this post, the Jesus droid did not taunt Stivastin anymore and I was able to kite him wherever I wanted him to be. Seems they improved his AI. The fight also has an interesting enrage mechanic, as you have five minutes before the whole building (supposedly) gets destroyed, so if you take too long, the fight resets.


The bonus boss is another masterpiece of encounter design, unique and difficult, but just about manageable even in a pug if you can get everyone to understand the tactics, follow them and communicate if necessary, which admittedly is no small task for a pug. The boss is a droid who summons a steady stream of explosive drones that float along the narrow corridor in which the fight takes place and can be dodged, though only with a lot of care. However, every so often a moment will come when you face a row of drones that you cannot fully avoid, requiring someone (usually a dps) to run in and "pop" one, taking huge damage in the process but freeing a path for the rest of the group. Said person is also debuffed by this, so the next time you get trapped, someone else needs to go and "sacrifice" themselves to a drone. I always find this fight simultaneously nerve-racking and exhilarating.

Story (spoilers)

The first part of Forged Alliances ended with both factions having assaulted the home world of the enemy Force users and having successfully repelled an attack on their own. However, on both factions one of the people that interacted with you during the story mission found the odd timing of those events very suspicious - and eventually either Theron Shan (for Republic players) or Lana Beniko (for Imperials) asks to meet you on Manaan to follow up on a lead they've discovered.

They've found out that Colonel Darok and Darth Arkous, the other two people involved in part one and the ones suspected of fishy activity, have been meeting in a secret research facility on the ocean planet Manaan. (Fishy indeed!) Your job is to go in there and find out what's going on, while Theron/Lana plans to meet a mysterious contact.

You soon find an imprisoned wookiee smuggler called Jakarro and his partially disassembled droid C2-D4. They tell you that they were originally hired to bring in medical supplies but were then captured and interrogated, with a threat of being used as guinea pigs for some sort of experiment looming in the near future. You agree to free them because... why not? My enemy's enemy is my friend and all that.


Theron/Lana stays in touch throughout via voice communications, until he or she suddenly has to go and gets replaced by their mysterious new contact - which turns out to be the other faction's quest giver.

Eventually you find a laboratory where a Selkath scientist is building a bunch of cyborgs, claiming that they are going to become a new breed of super soldiers due to implantation of Rakata technology. Jakarro recognises the scientist as the one who wanted to experiment on him and jumps to shoot him - you can let him have his revenge or talk him out of it.

In a small room overlooking the laboratory you find Darth Arkous and Colonel Darok working together. You can demand answers from them but they only give cryptic responses about how their work is bigger than any of you and soon make their escape. On the way out they bomb the building, causing it to slowly sink to the bottom of the ocean.

Lana or Theron informs you that all escape pods have been jettisoned but that a little emergency vehicle is in place if you can only reach it. Unfortunately the lab is sinking quickly, and the cyborg that the scientist was working on earlier has also woken up and wants to tear your limbs off. Once you defeat him, you realise thanks to a quick holo conversation that your new contact is of the enemy faction - you can express annoyance with that, but ultimately following their guidance to your escape vehicle takes precedence.

In the debriefing afterwards you meet your new contact in person and it's revealed that apparently Arkous and Darok work for the Revanites, a known Imperial cult that worships Revan. What exactly they are up to however remains unknown. Theron, Lana and Jakarro are going to do all they can to find out more.

Conclusion

When the Forged Alliances arc was originally completed, the general consensus from what I saw on forums and the like seemed to be that Depths of Manaan was its best part - sort of the Empire Strikes Back of this storyline. I initially disagreed because I really liked the environments in Legacy of the Rakata (the third part), however I think that with time I've come around to agreeing with the popular opinion. Depths of Manaan is just one of those rare flashpoints that manages to incorporate both an interesting story as well as challenging and mechanically interesting boss fights throughout. On top of that it takes place in a unique environment and the Selkath are unusual opponents to fight, while the whole place practically oozes with small touches of loving craftsmanship. (The depictions of "kolto" molecules visible in some places are actually caffeine molecules!)


I think what initially brought my opinion of this flashpoint down a bit was the character of Jakarro (and his droid). I suppose they are meant to be a comedic duo, but personally I just found them slightly annoying. Plus they are a prime example of the Star Wars Expanded Universe's strange habit of taking all kinds of details from the original trilogy and replicating them to the point of absurdity. It's as if someone looked at the section in Empire where Chewbacca carries a broken C-3PO around and went: "Oh man, we need a wookiee with a broken droid attached to him... all the time!" The result is just bizarre. Nonetheless my attitude towards them has mellowed somewhat over time and ultimately they can't detract from the fact that Depths of Manaan is just a great flashpoint.

07/06/2016

O Oricon!

Do you ever fall down a rabbit hole while playing? Log on with a specific goal in mind, but then something goes wrong or you get distracted, and suddenly you end up doing something completely different and eventually can barely even remember how you got there? That is how I ended up doing Oricon on my Vanguard yesterday. And it reminded me of how much I love that moon.


This is actually a post that I already thought about writing the last time I took an alt through the quest chain there (which was already quite some time ago) so it's really about time that I actually do it. It simply continues to fascinate me just how well this particular daily area has stood the test of time. I did like it well enough back when it was released, mind you, but at the time I was actually a little worried that it might be a tad too depressing to have long-term appeal - heh! After thinking about it for a little while, here are my reasons why I think Oricon continues to be more fun to re-play than most daily areas or even many pieces of one-time content:

Awesome Atmosphere

This is another thing I already mentioned when it was first released, but Oricon is amazingly atmospheric. I could see why not everyone might like everything having an orange tint or the way the Dread Masters strongly lean towards the fantastical instead of the sci-fi part of Star Wars, but they are great villains and it rubs off on their environment. You might think that "evil and insane" is an overdone cliché when it comes to villains, but these guys were already evil before they went insane - the madness just added a whole new flavour of terror to their repertoire. In turn, you can definitely feel good about offing their crazed and corrupted minions - you're clearly doing the galaxy a favour here.

Strong Storyline

Oricon is actually the only daily area that I can think of that has a fully voiced and cut-scened storyline associated with all the dailies that you do, and it's slightly different for both factions as well. Sure, other daily areas have stories too, but they are mostly of the generic "there are bad guys here, kill them"-type. The one that comes closest to Oricon in terms of story integration is probably Yavin IV, but then that story was only loosely connected to the actual dailies - after all you can complete it without ever touching most of them if you go down the operation route for the final bit.

I've actually been somewhat critical of attempts to connect dailies and storylines in the past, as they can lead to some really dumb dailies if done badly. (WoW's Firelands dailies and their pretense of progress that reset every day come to mind.) However, Oricon manages to pull it off reasonably well - without going beyond the standard pointlessness of having to redo the same tasks every day anyway.

I also thought it was really clever that the weekly unlocks the moment you also unlock the final heroic quest and lets it count towards completion, even though that particular quest is a one-time event. Some might consider it too old-school that the story cumulates in a heroic mission followed by a prompt to do an operation, but I think it simply fits - plus the heroic mission offers at least some closure, so you don't have to feel like a complete dolt if you never end up doing the operation.

Tight Questing

All the missions are tightly packed together and can be completed very quickly if you know what to do, making Oricon one of the more efficient places in which to run dailies and preventing it from ever feeling like a drag. Other daily areas have done a pretty good job of this as well, but they are usually lacking in other aspects, such as the ones mentioned above. Personally I also like that Oricon includes a heroic area, one of the few places in the game where at least some challenge is still preserved for the solo player.

Small Touches

I'm not usually a big hunter of lore objects, but on every alt I take to Oricon I also make a point of hunting down the little holocrons that give lore about the Dread Masters. It just feels right to have lore work that way, instead of having a random glowy rock in the back - the way it is so often with lore objects. Before I got all the achievements, I also loved hunting down all the different named champion mobs in the heroic area. The bonus missions attached to some of the dailies that unlock if you have macrobinoculars or a seeker droid are a neat little touch as well.


When was the last time you did Oricon? Or do you have another favourite daily area?

05/06/2016

KotFE Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 12: Visions in the Dark

Nearly there, only two chapters behind now! At this point, the Outlander has a steadily growing Alliance at her disposal but not much else. Will this chapter finally bring some actual progress? Spoilers say yes.



After he stayed completely quiet during the previous chapter, we already knew from the preview images that this chapter would feature the return of Valkorion in some manner. But in what way?

The chapter starts with another meeting of your crew in the war room. Using the data you stole in the previous two chapters, Scorpio was able to pinpoint a relay station under the Spire from which all the commands to the Eternal Fleet originate. It's easy to see why this is a powerful piece of intel: If you could get in there, you could disrupt Arcann's control over the fleet or bring it under your own command! However, everyone disagrees about what exactly should be done to make the best use out of this. Kaliyo is in favour of the "taking over" approach (with her doing all the infiltrating), while Jorgan sees blowing up the relay and thereby robbing Arcann of control as a perfect mission for Havoc Squad. You have to put your faith in one or the other.

After that, Lana suddenly advises you to consult with Valkorion because he knows the Spire better than anyone else. Okay, first off: Since when do we want to take advice from Valkorion? Secondly: So far he's only ever come out to talk whenever it suited him, not me, what makes us think that he'll suddenly be up for a chat? Sadly, neither of those questions are an option, instead you get told to "travel to a secluded area" to speak with Valkorion. This just adds another level of weirdness, because why is seclusion necessary? I get that my character might not want to start talking to herself like a madwoman in front of everyone else, but getting a little bit of privacy hardly requires you to travel out into the middle of the forest.

The cherry on top is that you then have to pick up a backpack of survival gear. Just what do you expect to happen while having a little chat with Valkorion? This is oddly prescient to say the least. Njessi humorously likened the survival gear to Dora the Explorer's talking backpack, and it's clearly designed to replace your healer companion while you're all alone with Valkorion. What, not everyone runs with a healer companion? Perish the thought! As a tank or healer, get ready for some tediously long fights while you have minimal dps at your disposal.

That said, the Odessen Wilds are pretty damn beautiful. Ever since I first set foot on Odessen I wanted to see more of the planet, and while what you see in this chapter is pretty limited and somewhat "spoiled" by it being night-time, it's better than nothing. By a little pool you manage to call forth Valkorion to chat, however he is not pleased to be bossed around like that and knocks you out with a blast of Force power. When you wake up, you are elsewhere in the forest and unable to reach your companions via comms. Valkorion whispers in your ear that he needs to teach you a lesson.

You make your way around the forest slaughtering aggressive wildlife while Valkorion keeps lecturing you about how you're only alive because of his intervention, how weak you are, how you're not living up to your destiny etc.. If you're dark side and have accepted his help pretty much every step of the way, this is a bit confusing. There are neat little stone cairns around the environment which you can jump to, however as far as I an tell they neither help you with avoiding the stalkers nor do they really speed you up in most places - they are just a little bit of fun.

Valkorion keeps going on about how you need to become something greater than you are right now and that your only alternative to certain death is to claim the Eternal Throne for yourself and reshape the galaxy. You duke it out for a bit, until he suddenly says that he can't stay to "protect you" any longer because he has other matters to attend to... and with that, he leaves. He claims to leave you with a final token of his favour, which shows you being gripped by Force energy until you pass out.


Meanwhile, at the Eternal Throne... Arcann is sulking because his father won't face him, and he and Vaylin think of Thexan once again. Vaylin comments that "he was a good brother", in a tone that seems to imply that Arcann isn't. He points out that it was him who freed her from their father's control, and she assures him that her support lies "here". (But is that really with him or just with the throne?)

You awake inside a grounded spaceship quite similar to those that Jedi characters travel in. Surveying the area for details reveals that it seems to belong to a Jedi as well, and one that has been staying here for a while. As a non-Force user, you'll also find yourself imbued with a sudden power to tame an animal to be your temporary companion - Force users achieve the same effect by briefly meditating at a nearby stone circle. Making friends with baby sleens is pretty fun!

Eventually you find the owner of the camp, and it turns out to be Satele Shan. So her and Darth Marr's Force ghost really are on Odessen as seen at the end of chapter nine! Sadly there is no "why have you been hiding in the woods all this time" conversation option. Satele sounds older and more tired - she admits that she failed at defending the Republic against Zakuul and has been hanging out on Odessen pretty much ever since. However, she feels that she has learned a lot in the meantime and asks you to follow her along a path lined with beacons that you are told to light, which is very reminiscent of a quest that young Jedi can do on Tython.

Once you've done so, she reveals that Odessen is a nexus in the Force where light and dark are perfectly balanced - and that Zakuul is another such world. She says that the Knights of Zakuul have mastered the use of the Force in a different way and that you too must overcome your old teachings to defeat them. You can point out that this sounds suspiciously like what Valkorion has been going on about, which causes Darth Marr's ghost to appear with a thundering: "We are nothing like that man!" He explains how he and Satele met up, argued and came to an understanding about the Force that they now want to pass on to you. Victory over Arcann will require both new perspectives and new weapons... so you're tasked with picking up various bits and bobs that they left lying around the wilderness for you before meeting them in a cave. While doing so, you hear their voices in your head some more, comparing the Force to a river and giving similar advice to Valkorion: that you need to find a new way of interacting with the Force and that your destiny lies with the Eternal Throne.

You make it to the cave and... Vaylin is there! Fortunately it turns out that instead of this being the lamest plot twist ever, she's just a vision - though you have to fight and defeat her anyway. Satele and Marr see it is a warning from the Force and say that you need to forge a new weapon to channel the Force against Arcann. Both offer to add some of their own power into it as well, but you can reject the help of one of them if you want. If you are a Force user, you get a cool cut scene of you forging a new lightsaber at the forge in the cave. If you're not a Force user, you awkwardly hammer away at it and then step away with a look of slight confusion at your new and magical assault cannon/blaster pistol/rifle.


Satele and Marr finish off with some words about leadership and where they've gone wrong. Your final lesson is supposed to wait in a nearby oasis. Just outside of it, you kill two young cave Jorgans Jurgorans, just to run into their mother inside. You can kill her, try to calm her or simply stare her down - both of the latter will result in her leaving peacefully.

Satele and Marr appear for one last goodbye, saying that the Force now wants them to go elsewhere and that it's their duty to follow its path. You can try to convince them otherwise, but they will ignore you. If you're evil you can even try to kill Satele, though she'll hold you off seemingly without effort.

You manage to escape the wilds and return to the Alliance base, just in time to see Kaliyo and Jorgan finish up their missions related to the hyperwave relay. Lana asks where you've been but the matter at hand is more important. Whoever you sent in to strike the main blow gets surprised by a bunch of Knights of Zakuul and loses contact. The other party will then insist on following up and completing the mission. You can order them to stand down but they'll ignore you either way and cut the comm. The mission ends on a cliffhanger, with you being unsure of what's happening at the Spire.

Conclusion

After the lukewarm reception the previous chapters received for feeling a bit like slightly more elaborate Alliance alerts, this chapter was a welcome breath of fresh air. People praised it for bringing back that Star Wars or even KOTOR feeling, and the story finally seemed to be going somewhere. I saw only very few complaints about the nonsensical setup at the start, but I think we were all just glad to get back to the Force, the subject of Valkorion and the fate of the Outlander.

The strong Force focus also elicited some criticism though - tech users felt more out of place than ever, being lectured about the Force while forging a magical gun. And while some welcomed the more "grey" approach to the Force that Satele and Marr preach in this chapter as a different take on the subject, others were wary of the conflict between light and dark being too much of a core tenet of Star Wars to be treated like this.

Gameplay-wise the chapter wasn't particularly exciting but not bad either. The map felt at least a little more open than in previous chapters (even if it's still very linear) as well as being just plain beautiful, and small touches like the cairns and animal companions added a bit of fun. The stealthy stalkers could get a bit annoying after a while, but at least they were not skytroopers. The lack of a companion sadly made the "boss fights" kind of tedious for people playing non-dps characters.


Story-wise we saw more hints of dissent among Arcann and Vaylin and the Outlander's role is thrown into sharp focus by both Valkorion as well as the Shan-Marr duo obsessing over what you should and shouldn't do. It's worrying how similar their advice is, even if they claim to be nothing alike! The biggest surprise was without a doubt Vakorion deciding to leave your head, as it was previously implied that he was kind of "stuck" with you and that this was the only reason he cared about your fate. Him being able to leave certainly casts his actions in a new light, even if his motivations remain a mystery.

02/06/2016

Little Things

I've previously bemoaned the lack of time I have for creating SWTOR videos these days, which - while not a main focus for me - is still an enjoyable pastime every now and then. Since I took this week off work, I therefore decided to go through my "backlog" of random recordings and finally make them into proper videos. So far I've been quite pleased with the results, though I'm not done yet. What's funny is that I found a mention of me wanting to make a cinematic video of Scum and Villainy as far back as June 2013! Better late than never, as I always say (plus the actual footage was "only" recorded three months ago):



In other news, we had a slightly irregular patch day yesterday (it being a Wednesday), and it was once again time for a new Knights of the Fallen Empire chapter! It made me think about how even if I don't agree with every part of the new direction the game has taken since KotFE, I definitely like getting new patches on such a regular schedule. It just gives the game this feeling of being very alive and there being plenty of things to do (even if I personally don't want to run every single alt of mine through the new storyline). Pre-KotFE the time between content patches had been on a steady increase for a while.

More frequent patches also mean more frequent quality of life improvements, such as another bay for our legacy cargo hold. I was actually struggling with this only a few weeks ago, agonising over what I had to move out of my legacy bank into an individual character's storage because I was running out of space. The new bank tab has brought welcome reprieve from that.

Also, more hair options for everyone! Here's a funny thing: When I play different MMOs, I re-use character names quite liberally, however I don't usually try to "re-create" a character in its entirety, giving it a similar look and abilities as they've had in another game. There was one exception though, a Sage alt whom I decided to make similar to my old night elf priest from WoW for some reason. I tried to bring to mind elven face markings by making her a cyborg with implants in roughly the right places, but my nelf's long blue hair turned into a stumbling block early on. Long hair was eventually added, but oddly it was the colour that turned out to be a problem, because even though blue was added as a colour as well and could be applied to the new hairstyle, this only worked on humans (???). Well, with this patch they finally did away with this and a bunch of other silly restrictions, much to my delight, so now my cyborg Sage is about as close to resembling my nelf priest as she's ever going to be (unless they add a single over-the-shoulder braid hairstyle I guess).


Funny how it's often the little things that can make you the most pleased with a patch.