30/05/2016

"Creative Blogger Award" - Some Stuff About Me & Gaming

Shadowz from The Legacies in SWTOR tagged me for something called the "Creative Blogger Award", which as far as I can tell is no award at all but simply another one of those memes that move around the blogsphere like chain letters and are popular because they give us bloggers yet another thing to talk about. Thanks for thinking of me, Shadowz! I rarely participate in these things because I'm a bit obsessed with staying "on topic" on my blog (thus the separate blogs for WoW stuff and Neverwinter) and I'm not good at coming up with "random" facts about myself, which is often a requirement.

However, I'm going to make an exception for this one because Shadowz' tag coincided with me having a conversation with Rav in one of her comment threads in which she mentioned that I rarely talk about my life beyond SWTOR. Which is true! So I thought I'd use this opportunity to do so. If this isn't something you're interested in, feel free to skip this post - I completely understand.

Anyway, first off, the rules of this "challenge":
  • Thank the person that nominated you and share a link back to their blog [done]
  • Post 5 facts about yourself [that's what the main part of this post will be about]
  • Nominate 15-20 people for this award [seems kind of excessive to me even by chain letter standards, but I will tag a few]
  • Let the people you nominated know, that you have nominated them
  • Post the rules so everyone will understand what to do

So, facts about myself:

1. In real life, I work a 9-5 desk job at the moment, which isn't bad, but honestly not very exciting to talk about either. When I get home, I want to immerse myself in something fun instead. Even more so since my employer moved to London a few months ago, introducing a long commute into my work day, which leaves me feeling exhausted every evening. Gaming offers a bit of escapism there, and I don't see that as a bad thing.

2. Both gaming and writing go very far back for me. I actually learned to read and write before I even entered school and started my first diary only a few years later. I've had a Livejournal since 2004, though I only post there very rarely these days.

As far as gaming goes, my father introduced multiple Commodore 64s into our household when I was still very little, and like my older brother I was absolutely fascinated by them. (My mother disapproved of computers and does so to this day.) I loved every opportunity to be allowed to play around on one, even if it was just to load up PrintMaster and plaster a sheet of paper with unicorns surrounded by flowery borders. (It's amazing what sorts of things you find entertaining when you're young.) The first actual game I was allowed to play was called Purple Turtles, a simple game where you play a character that repeatedly crosses a body of water on the backs of the eponymous purple turtles to feed fruit to an owl. That narrative, guys!

3. We soon came into the possession of literally hundreds of games for the C64, all pirated. The problems with the legality of this didn't actually hit me until long after, but at the time I wouldn't even known how else to acquire computer games. It wasn't until my teens that I actually started seeing them in the shops. Copying your own collection and sharing it with your friends was simply how it was done at the time.

I tried a lot of those games and didn't care for the vast majority at all. I wonder if this explains my immunity to the whole Steam sale phenomenon... I learned at a very young age that an abundance of games isn't necessarily all that much of a blessing. I liked things with colourful graphics and with gameplay that wasn't too stressful. Things that required a lot of jumping around and shooting enemies were sometimes fun to watch over my brother's shoulder, but I just wasn't any good at them and quickly got bored of replaying the first one or two levels over and over (back in the days without save functions). You could say that my gaming preferences showed themselves very early on.

My love for gaming really hit a new stride however when I discovered adventure games after we got our first PC. I remember laughing out loud when Stan the used boat salesman sold Guybrush Threepwood a ship whose mast fell over the moment it set sail... (and then I wrote all of this down in my diary of course).

4. It didn't take all that long for me to start writing about gaming either. When I finally beat a (to me) challenging adventure game, I started writing up a guide for it... not that I ever expected anyone else to actually read it, but somehow I wanted to preserve the knowledge that I had gained about how to solve all the puzzles really badly. My first real-time strategy game, a Bullfrog title called Gene Wars (which was critically panned and thus quickly forgotten) inspired me to write a sort of fanfic about my units' adventures.

The first online writing I did about games goes back a little over ten years ago, to a game called Neopets (which was also my first experience with online gaming and communities). I was in a guild there whose guild leader ran a small help site for the game and also loved to write, and somehow she eventually came up with the idea for a site called "The Neo Commentary" where she'd write editorials about what was happening in the game. Me and a couple of other guildies were invited to write for it as well, and I became the most regular contributor aside from the owner herself. However, she eventually lost interest in the game and took the site down.

5. I've talked a lot about my origins in gaming now, which was a topic that was making the rounds at some point last year or so. I remember that I found it very interesting at the time, but was also a bit sad to find out how little I had in common with most other bloggers in terms of gaming origins. A lot of people mentioned consoles and Mario, but I've actually never owned a console (unless you count my brother's discarded Sega Game Gear... but nobody seems to have fond memories of a Sega console).

Oddly, for all my love of computers, I've never been hugely interested in consoles. I have played a few games on those of friends over time of course, but I've always been a bit put off by their limitations. I realise it's quite hypocritical to say this considering how much time I spend using my PC to play games, but being able to also use the PC for other, more useful things has always set it apart from consoles for me, with the latter coming away as mere "toys" in comparison that offer a very bad value for money proposition in my opinion.

Bullet points or not, that was probably even more than five facts about me, and I even managed to stay at least vaguely on topic by focusing on my relationship with gaming! Now for the "tagging" part. As I mentioned above, I think 15-20 is a bit excessive. (Who else are they supposed to tag then? We'll use everyone up really quickly!) However, I will still tag...
Unlike with a classic chain letter, there are no threats of bad luck if you break the chain and don't make a post on this yourself, it's after all just a harmless bit of fun. Normal posting will resume within a few days!

27/05/2016

Flashpoint Friday: The Foundry

I'm keen on finishing my write-up of this group of flashpoints in this series, so let's get on with it. The grand finale of the mid-level Revan storyline!


General Facts

The Foundry is an Imperial-only flashpoint that has been in game since launch and was originally designed for levels 35-42. It's the last part of a story arc that spans four levelling flashpoints in total, with the first two taking place on Republic side and the Imperial part of the story starting with Boarding Party. Since 4.0 they are all tacticals accessible from level 15 onwards and also have a solo mode in order to enable people to just see the story.

The story that you've been told in the quest Call to Arms up to this point is that the Emperor supposedly allowed a powerful Jedi Master to escape from captivity so he would lead the Empire to an even more powerful, hidden installation called the Foundry. In the previous flashpoint you stole a Republic ship to approach said installation more stealthily, while this instance is about the main event of invading it.

Fights

The Foundry is basically a giant droid factory, so it's no surprise that most of the enemies you fight in it are droids too (and there are a lot of them). Interspersed are a couple of Jedi, plus in that bit where you exit the main installation for a while there are those moon slug things, one of which is the bonus boss.

Aside from said bonus boss, there are two fairly unremarkable droid bosses, plus that one Jedi where I'm never even sure whether he's supposed to be a boss or not, but he does drop some crystals as far as I recall.


What makes this flashpoint interesting however are two fights: HK-47 and... the Jedi Master.

HK-47 is a fairly interesting fight in terms of mechanics, though to this day I'm not entirely sure how much of it is intended and how much of it is simply due to bugs. Apart from add summons, the key mechanic is that HK will disappear into a giant machine core every so often to power up, which you have to interrupt by clicking on four panels on its outside. However I've also seen HK stand in the core's spot with no actual core visible, while simply being immune to all damage, and people getting one-shotted when they tried to attack him. I guess we're willing to forgive that because he's HK - being a bit of an unpredictable killer is in character.

And of course at the end we have... Revan! Sadly he's not nearly as cool in terms of mechanics as he could have been. The fight is quite impressive visually, with Revan drawing from a mix of Jedi and Sith abilities while going on about how he uses the power of the Force in balance. In practice however, there's simply a lot of dodging out of circles and not much else. His body mysteriously disappears at the end, leaving the door open for a possible return of the character, which Bioware eventually made a reality in 3.0.

Story (spoilers)

So... I guess I kind of already spoiled it in the paragraph above, but it just so happens that the mysterious Jedi Master in charge of the Foundry turns out to be Revan. He contacts you on the holo shortly after you kill the first boss, offering to not treat you badly as his prisoners if you give yourself up peacefully. Of course that's not an option.

Later you run into a holographic projection of HK-47 who explains that his master has devised a plan to eradicate something like 98% of the Imperial population because they all have some traces of Sith blood in them and the galaxy needs to be cleansed of that. In other words, Revan has turned into a genocidal maniac and needs to be stopped. So you kill first his droid and then the man himself.

The flashpoint ends with the Empire taking control of the Foundry, a super powerful installation that is sure to win it the war, just to never be heard of again.

Conclusion

Overall the Foundry is another fun romp, if maybe filled with a bit much trash. (It's one of the few places where I'm not too bothered if the rest of the group wants to skip the two bonus quests.) Getting to fight HK-47 and Revan is kinda cool.

Kinda.


Here's the rub though (and I already talked about this to some extent in my Maelstrom Prison review): Putting a storyline about Revan, which is incidentally also a direct continuation of the Revan novel, into a bunch of mid-level flashpoints was simply not a good idea, because it meant that it had to be completely disconnected from the game's main storyline, which in turn resulted in it being both kind of nonsensical and not really doing the character of Revan justice. And I'm saying that as someone without previous attachments to KOTOR!

If you come to the Foundry as an Imperial player first, you kind of go: "Wait, Revan is alive? And he's insane? Why?" If you actually played through the part of the story on Republic side first, you know the answer to the first question, but instead you go: "No way the Republic would have sanctioned genocide like this, what is going on? And we're killing Revan, yet nobody ever mentions this anywhere on Republic side?" Everybody kind of loses.

After having played through all the flashpoints in this story multiple times, I do kind of appreciate the effort that was clearly expended to tie all of it together... but it's simply not good enough. Even if you play both factions, it feels like there is too much missing, mainly any sort of explanation of why Revan has turned into a genocidal maniac. Sure, you could argue that the long imprisonment by the Emperor drove him insane, but having to look for an explanation for something this crucial to the plot after the fact is not very satisfying. Plus there is the whole issue of the Foundry being this incredibly powerful installation, clearly a defining point in winning the war... and then it is never mentioned again. If you want to keep flashpoints separate from the main storyline, you can't just leave all-powerful MacGuffins lying around at the end of one.

I still recommend visiting the place to see the storyline, even more so now since it's kind of required background reading for the Shadow of Revan storyline that was added in 3.0. However, overall it definitely isn't one of Bioware's more shining examples of storytelling. Even though I enjoy aspects of it, I still find the Foundry to be the most disappointing of the lot, simply because up until then there was still room (in theory anyway) to explain some things. However, the Foundry just goes "nope, this is it", which is a bit of a letdown.

25/05/2016

On Negativity

The other day a really old post of mine suddenly popped up in the "recently popular posts" widget on my sidebar: More Positivity Please! It's a post that I wrote back in July 2012 (shortly before the free-to-play conversion was announced actually), lamenting the way that SWTOR was being talked about in the wider media - which is to say: very negatively - and how that seemed to make even the most devoted fans a bit ashamed of admitting that they simply enjoyed the game. I really wish I knew where the sudden attention to this post came from, but sadly my analytics tools are being their usual disagreeable selves. According to Google Analytics, nobody has been looking at that post at all, but I'm inclined to believe Blogger in this case because this is just too curious to be random.

Are we seeing a new wave of negativity centred around the game, causing people to look for posts on the subject? Depends on who you ask I suppose.

Personally I tend to hang around a lot of fan sites and blogs that write about more than one game (also refer to my blog roll), and my overall impression there has been that the "mainstream" reputation of SWTOR is actually better now than it has been in a very long time. That's not to say that you won't find people in the Massively OP comments talking about how much it sucks, but as Wilhelm pointed out the other week, according to the internet, every MMO is dead anyway. It's all relative.

I nearly had a heart attack when everyone's favourite MMO cynic, Syncaine, posted last year that, based on what he had read in the news, maybe SWTOR was somewhat on the upswing. Metacritic paints a picture of a game slowly clawing its way back up in terms of public recognition: The page for the base game sits at an unimpressive user score of 5.9, and while Rise of the Hutt Cartel managed to make that rise to a 7.1, that was also the critics' turn to be less than impressed with the first expansion. Despite of supposedly being quite successful, Shadow of Revan didn't even garner enough interest to deserve a metacritic page of its own, but with Knights of the Fallen Empire, Bioware appears to be back in business and the user ratings have finally managed to make it up into the green. PC Gamer even had an article a few months back in which it listed SWTOR as one of the "biggest comebacks in PC gaming". I'm sure I wasn't the only one whose jaw dropped a bit while reading that (though in my case it's more because gameplay-wise, I really don't think there was anything to come back from).

However, in somewhat of an ironic turnaround from 2012, it's now many of the loyal core players that are unhappy. Are we ever going to see another operation? Where is the group content and love for competitive PvP? You don't have to venture very far to hear these cries resonate wherever the community likes to meet to chat, whether it's on the forums or on Twitter.

The latest OotiniCast featured an interesting take on this, as they talked about players who criticise the game feeling somewhat... beleaguered by those who really like the current direction. Now, I do want to say up front that - obviously - I in no way support people getting insulted or harassed for their opinions about the game, no matter what those are. Yet the same time I couldn't help but find the narrative of disgruntled players being under siege from superfans a bit... surreal. Whenever I look at the official forums or the SWTOR subreddit, I certainly see as much moaning about the game as ever. Criticism may be important, but it's also easy to contribute - the saying "everyone's a critic" exists for a reason, so it's not as if the disgruntled part of the community is in any actual danger of being silenced.

I also suspect that people often have a significantly higher opinion of their "criticism" than it really deserves. Just because you're not insulting anyone, that doesn't automatically make you very helpful. Just repeating the same complaints over and over again isn't constructive, just tedious. As someone who absolutely does hope for a new operation soon, even I get tired of seeing every announcement of a new feature or initiative get inundated with "Who cares, where are the new ops?"-type comments. It annoys me that people can be so single-minded in a game that has so much to offer. You are free to state the same things over and over again of course, but people are not obliged to agree with you.

Somewhat related to this, in the same OotiniCast episode the subject of playing other games came up, and some slightly conflicting viewpoints were stated. Swtorista mentioned that her multi-gaming community was highly supportive of people switching between different games, while one of the essays that were read out complained about people feeling ostracised when they are being told to maybe play something else if they are so fed up with SWTOR. Personally I'm firmly in the "other games are good" camp here. Nobody likes having someone along who just complains all the time, and often hopping into a different game for a while can provide you with a whole new perspective. This isn't about being cast out from the community - it's about wanting everyone to play something that they actually enjoy. Even as someone who often plays the same game for years, I still dabble in other games at the same time - there really is no shame in that.

In conclusion, in the more "mainstream" media, SWTOR's reputation has improved drastically since launch, and even though I haven't agreed with every part of the game's current direction, I'm nonetheless glad about this because it makes me feel less like the pariah playing "that MMO that everybody else hates" when I hang out in a multi-gaming space. I'm optimistic that good times are ahead for SWTOR in the near future - even if you are super cynical about the state of the game, you'll have to admit that the new movies will keep investment in all things Star Wars-related high for at least the next couple of years. Personally I'm also hopeful that greater success for the game will maybe result in at least a little bit more reinvestment in more varied content, even if we all know that EA just like to fill their pockets.

And yes, let's all keep talking about the stuff we'd like to see more of, but let's also maintain some perspective while doing so please. If you're still clamouring for cross-server warzones nearly five years after launch, or grousing about the removal of 8v8 ranked PvP two and a half years after the fact, it may be time to play something else for a while. Maybe you'll realise that actually, you miss your character having a deep story and colourful companions and that you enjoy these things more than you thought. Or maybe you'll ask yourself why you didn't start playing this other awesome game which is completely focused on PvP years ago. Either way, everybody wins.

23/05/2016

More Eternal Championship Lessons

As predicted in my first post about the Eternal Championship, I've felt inspired to come back to it a couple of times to get a better grip on its mechanics. It's been interesting.

Of course, what I really want to do is take my Guardian and her amazing cooldowns through it, mainly to saber-reflect the last boss's laser of doom back into his face, but sadly she's kind of stuck. I never bothered to start the Alliance alerts with her during or after KotFE chapter nine, so now she's sitting there, ready to provide step-by-step reminders for my next chapter discussion, which has the side effect that whenever I try to go near an Alliance NPC the next chapter starts, but if I escape out of it I get evicted from the phase. This makes it impossible to work on the Alliance in any way without playing through more story chapters first. Sadness.

Anyway, this more or less left me with my Marauder to see things from a dps perspective. This didn't go as well as expected, though in hindsight I really shouldn't have been that surprised, considering that I'm not good at playing Marauder, she has about twenty item levels less than my main, her highest level influence companion was only level fifteen or so, and did I mention yet that I'm really not good at playing Marauder?! I did eventually muddle my way through, but not without dying a lot on the way.

If nothing else however, this finally inspired me to go and work on fixing the one issue I was having that was relatively easy to address: companion influence. I have two legacy bank tabs full of companion gifts, always saving them for a rainy day, but really: Is there ever going to be another piece of content where companion influence will matter as much? So I took out what appropriate gifts I had and got Pierce up to the mid-thirties, while Shintar got Bowdaar up to nearly fourty. (In hindsight I probably should have chosen Yuun though... I like that wookiee, but where's the trooper pride?!)

The difference this made on my next run-through with Shin was amazing. Things were still relatively slow of course, but all the fights went down so much more smoothly. I even got the achievement for completing the whole thing without dying, which I'm quite proud of. The speed run must be really hard by the way; I've only seen one guy in my guild mention that he's got it - he's one of our top dpsers and even he said that it was quite challenging as he had to learn to make it through most fights with a dps companion.

Anyway, back to humble old me: On my Marauder, oddly enough, the improved companion influence seemed to make little to no difference and I still died a whole bunch of times on my next runthrough. I will keep working on that.

I suspect that the bosses that keep giving me trouble are the same ones that most people struggle with. The first five fights are pretty breezy, but the Breaktown Brawler in round six is a major stumbling block. On Shin it's pretty smooth now because I set Bowdaar on one of the adds and then just kite the other two around the room with healing aggro until my companion has killed everything off, but on my Marauder it's complete mayhem. I'm just still not sure what's the best way of handling this fight, as the requirements of staying in melee range while always trying to kite one or more of the mobs are somewhat contradictory.

Nocturno and Drake Raven are probably the ones that caused me the most deaths in total, though it helped a lot once I found out that you're best off killing Drake first and stealing his utility belt. In hindsight I have no idea how I made it through Nocturno's enrage the first time without even knowing about this! Again, what I find challenging about this fight is that dpsing Drake and kiting Nocturno at the same time can be somewhat at odds with each other. On Shintar it eventually became easy because I would just have Bowdaar chase Drake around while I could focus on standing in the right place to stun Nocturno over and over. On my Marauder things would often get messy while I tried to stay in melee with Drake at the same time as repositioning Nocturno. Nothing like clipping a stun mine just as you get targeted by the next one and remaining stunned for ages while Nocturno whales on you!

Little Gut and the Doom Droid aren't so bad in my opinion, but the last fight is once again quite challenging, though this is the one where I found that it really helps to figure out certain "tricks". I feel like this fight really punishes you for having low dps as there is so much going on that if your damage output isn't very good, it's way too easy to fall behind on some mechanic or other, which only makes the fight even harder, which gets worse and worse until you wipe. I already mentioned the drones in my last post, and how it's really helpful to get as many of them as possible killed without having to directly divert your damage to them. In the last phase, the boss can also be interrupted and stunned! Holy cow, was that a revelation to me or what? Certainly helped a lot with keeping him controlled while I did my best to burst him down.

Have you figured out any great tips for how to handle these bosses? Feel free to share them in the comments!

20/05/2016

KotFE Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 11: Disavowed

Yes, I'm back with yet another chapter discussion - I feel like I'm on a roll here. As usual, beware of spoilers.



If Koth left you in the last chapter, this one starts with an awkward little chat with Tora in which she assures you that both she and the rest of Koth's crew are still loyal to you - not out of any sort of sense of sentimentality mind you, but simply because you're the one who pays the bills.

Soon afterwards (and this is where the chapter starts if Koth hasn't left you), Theron Shan summons you to talk to you about some new potential allies. Hm, when have we heard that before? Apparently sharing some of the data you secured from the Overwatch with an SIS contact of his (Jonas Balkar from the trooper class story, if you must know) has inclined the infamous Havoc Squad favourably towards you. (I commented on how as a trooper, you seem curiously disinterested in this.) Theron wants you to be the one to recruit them, as he can't openly be seen to "poach" Republic troops. Once again, he's set up a meeting on Zakuul - where else?

You meet Havoc Squad in the swamp there, now under the leadership of former trooper companion Aric Jorgan, but otherwise consisting of a whole new bunch of people. If you're a trooper, he's happy to see you and the whole squad salutes you, otherwise his reaction ranges from grudging admiration for you to healthy skepticism about your motives. Either way he admits that they are on an operation with which they could use your help. At that moment, skytroopers crash the meeting and you have to fight them off.

Aric orders his squad to split up and make their way back to camp, while he will do the same in your company. On the way you run into a new type of skytrooper - they have little flashlights on their heads! Totally different experience, man! While Jorgan scouts the area through the scope of his sniper rifle, you get to watch his backside (quite literally!) while he quizzes you about Arcann and complains about how disenchanted he feels with the Republic's leadership since Saresh seems to have abandoned all principles in her quest for absolute victory.

Suddenly you spot some civilians being chased by skytroopers and of course you have to help them out. You can protest, but Aric will insist on helping them anyway. They tell you that skytroopers showed up of nowhere to drive them out of their homes in the swamp and beg for you to go and rescue their friends as well. Again, you can protest that this is a waste of time, but Jorgan wants to do it and since you're there to get on his good side you kind of have to go along with his wishes for now.

You clear the nearby village of skytroopers and evacuate its inhabitants, but they are not actually that pleased to be rescued by you because they blame you for the fact that the attack even happened, as the skytroopers were out searching for you. Previously they were "just" exiles, cast out from Zakuul for daring to doubt the Emperor and his policies. Jorgan offers to take them to Havoc's camp to help them to the best of your ability (again, you get no option to veto this), so you have to clear a bit of a path through the swamp. Once you arrive at camp, Jorgan has a bit of a personal conversation with you if you are a trooper about what both of you have been up to, otherwise he just reiterates that he's in charge of Havoc Squad, not you, and tells you to go to bed.


The next morning you have a war council with Theron, Havoc Squad and one of the exiles, who is a lot more grateful and appreciative after a good night's sleep. The data Theron leaked to the SIS has given Havoc a target in the form of a planetary transmitter that they want to wiretap. You are supposed to come along to this, and your Alliance is needed to provide a major distraction. You agree to provide this.

You and Aric assault the Outpost together while Havoc Squad covers you. Thanks to the distraction there are relatively few enemies in the base, however you have to solve a little puzzle to get past a forcefield. Eventually you successfully bug the transmitter, however the enemy is alerted to your presence and you have to fight your way back out through reinforcements, which includes an (in my opinion) reasonably interesting fight against a battle droid.

You reunite with Havoc Squad but get cornered by a bunch of skytroopers... which isn't as convincing a threat as it's supposed to be, considering the ease with which you've been offing these guys even while all on your own. Luckily however, a bunch of exiles show up with stolen weaponry and open a breach for you. They explain that after having been protected all of their lives, they finally want to fight for themselves.

You all agree that the mission was a success, and Aric is excited by the idea of Arcann involuntarily breeding his own resistance in the swamp, to the point where he offers to stay there with Havoc to train the exiles as proper fighters. You can approve this or note that it's a waste of talent as Havoc's abilities are needed elsewhere. Note that Koth (if he's still with you) won't really be entirely happy with either option! There's just no pleasing that man.

The chapter ends on Odessen with your companions doing their usual bickering. You go to "relax" in the cantina, but all that happens is that Nico (or Hylo, if you haven't recruited Nico) comes to sit across from you, nods, and then you get called back to the war room because Scorpio made an important new discovery. In one of the transmissions you've been able to monitor thanks to the wiretap, she's found something called the Gemini frequency, which is used to communicate with the Eternal Fleet. You instruct your companions to work out a plan of attack that makes use of this new information.

Conclusion

Chapter eleven's launch was marred by some annoying bugs, such as Aric showing up in nothing but his undies, however otherwise it felt like a step up from chapter ten, if not by much.


People criticised it for feeling too short, as well as being yet another recruitment mission that didn't really seem to advance the story very much (though the discovery of the Gemini frequency at the end seemed to at least hint at larger things). Some people also seemed to get quite annoyed with the door puzzle, though personally I thought that was a nice change of pace. I also didn't mind the shortness too much - it was certainly preferable to the chapter being stuffed with unnecessary skytrooper padding like chapter ten. The only point where it felt like something was maybe cut out was the little cantina scene near the end, which didn't seem to actually do anything other than mark that some time had passed since you last spoke to Scorpio.

I admit that I'm biased here since my main is a trooper and I found the trooper-exclusive bits of dialogue to be very satisfying, but I also thought that Jorgan was a less offensive choice of mandatory story companion than Kaliyo. Sure, he's not exactly universally beloved either, but at least wanting to recruit a bunch of elite soldiers onto your team makes some sense regardless of your character's alignment. Personally I would have appreciated an opportunity to learn a bit more about the new Havoc Squad, especially as a trooper, but I can understand that resources for that kind of thing are limited.

We also learn a bit more about Zakuulan dissenters, though to be honest I didn't feel that they got a lot of characterisation. There's also a bit of a lack of interesting choices in this chapter, as you get shot down every time you disagree with Aric and then grudgingly go along with his opinion anyway. Overall, a fun chapter for troopers but probably a bit boring for everyone else.

17/05/2016

Midbie PvP Joy

It's been a little while since I posted about doing lowbie PvP with Traitine, but we've actually settled into a sort of rhythm of meeting up for another stream once per month. I just didn't post a video about last time because even though the matches themselves were fun, I was worried about the videos maybe getting a bit samey. (Plus we also had some pretty bad luck that week, with the group queue suffering a bug that made queue times annoyingly long, and being unable to get the new warzone to pop even though Traitine really wanted to see it.)

However, there was no risk of samey-ness this month! With Bioware having enabled cross-region transfers recently, Traitine decided to move his level sixty gunslinger main to The Red Eclipse so we could invade what we so fondly call the "midbie" bracket (levels 40-64) together. We weren't alone this time either: Rav came along again, bringing her boyfriend Conrad with her, and I got two of my guildies to join in - incidentally, one of them was Calphaya, who also joined my guild after transferring to TRE recently. Illustrious company indeed!

It made me realise that it's literally been years since the last time I was in a PvP premade large enough to require an ops group. (Note that you can't queue an entire ops group at once, but if you're on voice chat together, it's easy enough to queue multiple groups simultaneously and chances of ending up in the same match are pretty good. We only ended up getting separated once.)

What happened to all those people I used to PvP with? Well, some of them stopped playing, others moved on to other guilds or even other servers that were more in line with their interests (our guild is primarily a PvE guild after all). Others simply PvPed less and less over time... and I can't judge, because I've been in that boat myself! It's just refreshing to be reminded of just how much fun it can be to group up with friends for this kind of thing. Unsurprisingly we didn't lose a single game this time.



On a side note, I also realised that we spend a pretty considerate amount of time during these play sessions judging people for silly names and bad fashion. It starts with a shoutout to Njessi at 6:04 (btw, I totally saw who they were talking about once I watched the video... dunno why I was that blind while actually playing) and then it just keeps going... horrible name (10:31), plain silly name (16:39). fashion-consciousness (17:08), ironic guild names (18:05), a moment of confusion until everyone realises that's an actual character's name (27:36), sideboob judgement (30:28), statement names (33:57), and finally the plain unoriginal (37:28).

In terms of actual warzones played, the RNG served up a surprisingly symmetric selection this time, with two Huttballs, two Civil Wars, two Hypergates (well, for those of us who got into the Hypergate instead of the arena) and two Odessens. (Finally Traitine got to see it!)

I'm already looking forward to next time.

13/05/2016

Flashpoint Friday: Czerka Core Meltdown

In today's Flashpoint Friday I'd like to talk about Czerka Core Meltdown. Would you believe that I had virtually no useful screenshots of that place? On the plus side, when I ran it today to grab some, I got a nice chatty group with two players who were new to the flashpoint and enjoyed being shown around.


General Facts

Like its "twin", Czerka Corporate Labs, Core Meltdown was released as part of patch 2.3 in August 2013. Said patch was called Titans of Industry, just like the accompanying quest line for both flashpoints.

They were the first flashpoints to be released as role-neutral (though Bioware hadn't come up with the term "tactical" yet), though they still came with a hardmode version that required a trinity group. Both flashpoints were also part of the CZ-198 weekly quest until patch 3.2, which meant that people ran them a lot at max level (then 55)... until that requirement was dropped, that is.

Core Meltdown is a straight continuation of the story started in Czerka Corporate Labs.

Fights

The trash, consisting of guard droids and a couple of "experiments", is fairly unimpressive - like the trash in Corporate Labs, it was clearly designed to be easy on groups without a tank or healer - but at least it's not completely without variety. The bosses however range from interesting to challenging.

The first two bosses can be done in any order and are both large beasts kept in special habitats that also play a role in fighting them. (I'm actually a bit unclear on why you need to kill them to progress to the end, but hey... video game logic!)

One of them, a giant Vrblblblther, summons groups of flappy little adds and needs to be weakened by repeatedly being dragged near giant spores that you need to pop at the right time. The other one, a desert Duneclaw, is surrounded by generators that simulate a sandstorm and do heavy AoE damage. Every time one activates, you have to drag the boss towards it so that his smash attack destroys the generator and ends the sandstorm.


Since the boss needs to be directed in both fights, stable aggro is really helpful, but even if you don't have that, whoever has aggro at any given moment will have to take responsibility and lead the boss towards the right spot. This can be a considerable challenge for a pug! The Duneclaw also has the added difficulty of the sandstorms doing considerable AoE damage, which means that it's the boss most likely to result in a "wipefest" (quote from one of my puggers) if you don't have a healer and a tank and/or several of your party members are low level. If the group is reasonably balanced, it's not too bad. I also remember this boss's hardmode version being a bit of a turning point for my Scoundrel because I failed really hard at healing through the fight as a hybrid spec (back when that was a thing), leaving me with the lesson not to go back in there again unless my character was fully prepared.

The last boss, the Vigilant, is something of an odd duck. He (as well as the trash leading up to him) are obviously supposed to be these scary experimental super soldiers created by Czerka... but they all look like flesh raiders, mobs that can otherwise only be found on Tython. It's kind of hard to be impressed by something that reminds you of the wimpy enemies from the starter zone.

Mechanics-wise, the fight is also strange, as you spend more time fighting the environment - taking down static props and spawned adds - than the boss himself. He just waits until you've finished all of that, then pounces down and pretty much dies within a minute.

Story

After having defeated the corrupt Czerka special executive Rasmus Blys in Corporate Labs, it's time to secure the rest of the facility, and Blys managed to activate the mysterious "Vigilant" security system before he died. What could it be?

After having unlocked a way to the core by shutting down all the security systems, including various animal habitats, you finally face the Vigilant: Turns out the mysterious security system is basically one big monster. Once you defeat it, the facility is yours.

Conclusion

I have kind of mixed feelings about Czerka Core Meltdown. First off, it has the same pros and cons as Corporate Labs: The lack of a meaningful story and of interactive cut scenes makes it feel a bit out of place in a Bioware game but also makes it much more repeatable than many other flashpoints.

That said, I also feel that Core Meltdown doesn't come together as well as Corporate Labs. Individual set pieces are well done, but there's a certain feeling of... "What is all of this?" Finding out that the much talked-about top secret security system is just a slightly silly looking monster is a bit of an anti-climax.


On the other hand, the fights are more interesting than those in Corporate Labs in terms of mechanics, with the Duneclaw in particular being one of the more challenging bosses to be found in random flashpoints today. Depending on who you run with, that can also be a bad thing of course...

10/05/2016

KotFE Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 10: Anarchy in Paradise

Here we are, with everyone talking about the recently released chapter thirteen... and I'm about to discuss chapter ten with you, because that's how far I've come in my chapter by chapter discussion. Give it another month or two and I'll be all caught up just in time for the grand finale! At least things are a bit different from here on out because we're covering chapters that were released following a monthly cadence instead of in one big chunk. Remember, there be spoilers!



More than three months had passed between the original KotFE release and the unveiling of the next chapter in the series, Anarchy in Paradise, though we had known from the preview picture that it would feature Imperial agent companion Kaliyo, apparently nicknamed "Firebrand" on Zakuul... because Bioware doesn't care about story characters getting confused with old raid bosses.

Since a break was assumed between the end of chapter nine and the start of ten, it starts with a bit of a "reminder" of what's going on. We see Vaylin enterting Arcann's throne room and getting criticised for being unable to locate the Outlander and the Gravestone, even though she's been searching in five sectors. Arcann is convinced that someone must know their location, and orders that random planets in those same sectors are to be bombed in order to frighten the civilians into revealing what they know.

Back on Odessen, Theron has summoned your character because he has a lead on a potential ally on Zakuul called Firebrand. Koth immediately objects to this classification because said Firebrand is a known terrorist, but Theron still thinks that her skills could be useful. Scorpio offers to use her Lady of Sorrows identity to set up a meeting.

You and Theron travel to Zakuul to meet "Firebrand" in an abandoned transport station, though you have to dispatch some skytroopers first, who immediately display a new affinity for aggroing in odd and annoying ways (such as from all the way across the room), which was presumably introduced to make the combat more dynamic and interesting but in practice only ends up being annoying. Sadly this continues throughout the whole chapter.


Kaliyo isn' too impressed by you coming to her under false pretenses, though she recognises you as the Outlander who is supposed to have wreaked havoc at the droid factory in chapter three (where Vaylin caused its reactor to become unstable and it either blew or up or nearly did, based on your choices then).  If you're an agent, she recognises you as well of course... though I didn't find it to be a particularly heartfelt reunion (apparently not even if you romanced her). Either way I thought it was a nice touch that she appears with whatever customisation you had on her pre-KotFE. As a knight you can also express a vague sense of familiarity as you briefly met her in one of Doc's companion quests (though apparently this option was missing due to an oversight when the chapter originally launched).

Kaliyo is not particularly impressed by your offer to join your Alliance; in fact she accuses you of "having stolen her thunder" with all your antics on Zakuul, but she's willing to talk some more if you come along to help her with her newest project. Theron leaves you to it. (Sure, Theron, leave me alone with the terrorist, why don't you?)

As it turns out, Kaliyo's project involves planting bombs on a bunch of power junctions, so you go along and help her. On the way you fight more skytroopers, as well as a new mob type, the "sky turret". Sadly that doesn't make the fights any more interesting. Kaliyo reveals that she's already got a plan to wreak havoc at the "Overwatch", the Spire's command centre from which most of the local droids are controlled. She talks about how the citizens of Zakuul are totally dependent on machines and unable to take care of themselves, so she wants to show them what "real life" is like by depriving them of their droids for a day or two. If you were to help her, you'd supposedly acquire what's essentially a blueprint of the city and would be very helpful for planning future attacks against Zakuul.

At one point during your tour across various maintenance platforms, Kaliyo needs a minute to talk to a contact, which you are allowed to observe from a distance. It's a young woman with giant scars on her face who turns out to be the daughter of the Overwatch administrator. Kaliyo explains that she and her friends are "groupies" of sorts who like to spice up their boring lives by assisting with her rebellious and risky endeavours, though this one mentioned that several of them want to drop out and the girl herself seemed uncomfortable too.


Later, Kaliyo also wants to know about your motivation for fighting Arcann. She professes that her own is just a love for anarchy and a desire for revenge, as the war against the Eternal Empire had messed up her previous gig as a freelancer. She also complains about the Zakuulans some more, saying that nothing can hurt them as they are too used to everything forever getting fixed and mended by their droids. "Even you killing their Emperor just made them sniffle", she proclaims hilariously... which is an interesting contrast to Senya's comment in chapter five about how the Zakuulans have been blind to Arcann's corruption because of their intense grief about Valkorion's death.

You finish up with a brief trip to Kaliyo's apartment - which is surprisingly luxurious, with a bar tender droid and a little pool. Seems that she traded up after living with the agent! She shows you some holos of young Zakuulans, showing how their attitudes have changed from being awed by Firebrand's antics to being genuinely frightened and put off by the Outlander. She considers this a "wake-up call" for herself.

Eventually Kaliyo decides that it's time to blow the junctions and you hop into her speeder together to invade the Overwatch. Valkorion briefly whispers into your ear to express a certain approval of Kaliyo, as she only "enhances" perfection from his point of view. In the first room of the Overwatch, there is a little bonus mission that is so obscure that even Dulfy failed to include it in her guide (and I managed to miss it multiple times until I saw someone else mention it). You click on a couple of monitors to pick up the mission to free two prisoners that are being interrogated - if you had noticed them before and were wondering what they were about, that's it! They are either siblings or a couple with the last name "Beta" and dressed up as vigilantes or something... makes you wonder.

Inside the Overwatch, you get your city blueprints and Kaliyo gets ready to blow things up when Overwatch administrator Tayvor Slen shows up. He reveals that he was involved with Kaliyo and was basically sponsoring her activities to keep her in line and make sure she didn't do any permanent damage. Kaliyo is visibly pleased to rub her betrayal in his face and basically says that she's done being his pet and wants to go back to doing some real damage.


The ensuing fight is pretty impressive visually, with support vehicles flying up outside the building and shooting through the windows, blowing glass shards everywhere, but mechanically you just spend a lot of time mopping up weak adds while the boss is immune to damage for prolonged periods of time.

Once he's down, Kaliyo reveals that actually, she's also planted bombs at various civilian targets this time. You can let her go ahead with blowing these up as well (or even pull the trigger yourself) or talk her out of it. The latter option is a bit... strange. Knowing Kaliyo, I expected the dialogue to go along the lines of: "No, this wasn't part of the plan! I won't let you do this!" - "Meh, whatever." In practice, your character launches into a speech trying to appeal to Kaliyo's better nature... and... it works? Okaaay...

You escape the Overwatch together with Kaliyo's speeder and make it back to Odessen, where Theron asks you if you want to keep her. You get the option to say yes, yes and "maybe, but really yes". If you blew up the civilian targets, Koth freaks out at you. You've got the option to apologise and try to calm him down or tell him that he needs to get over it. If you choose the latter, you will actually get an alert a bit later on that he has tried to steal the Gravestone (though he failed) and that he has taken a shuttle to leave Odessen. Basically, you pissed him off enough that he left you.

You get a brief scene between Kaliyo and Scorpio where it's acknowledged that they know each other - as an agent you get some particularly amusing conversation options here. Kaliyo says that she'll keep herself busy taking care of her own business for a while but that you just need to give her a call once you're ready to make your move.

Shortly afterwards, you get bad news in the war room (aside from Koth's betrayal if you did trigger that). The Alliance has found out about the Eternal Fleet bombarding five planets for supposedly supporting you (as we saw Arcann and Vaylin discuss at the start of the chapter). Senya is distraught and blames the deaths on the Alliance. You get to choose from a couple of options as for how to respond but the gist of it is that you can't really react in a major way.


We finish with another view of the Eternal Throne, where Vaylin is pleased with having finished bombing those worlds, but instead of being pleased to see her, Arcann is angry that the Outlander was on Zakuul once again and managed to make a mess of things yet again. He says that in order to regain their honour, he wants all his Knights to engage in duels to the death. It's telling that even Vaylin appears shocked by this, after mostly coming across as the crazy and ruthless one until now.

Conclusion

I think that I would have rated this chapter reasonably high when it first came out, simply because I was happy to get some new content. After having seen how much better Bioware has done with the consecutive chapters that have been released since then... well, we know they can do better.

The big thing that this chapter has going for it in my opinion is that we learn more about the citizens of Zakuul "in the flesh" instead of just from codex entries. However you may feel about the way they live their lives, it's certainly interesting.

Also, the fact that you can piss off Koth sufficiently to make him leave you was welcomed by many as a sign that choices do matter in KotFE, though it remains to be seen whether there are any further-reaching consequences to this particular choice, aside from one less companion in your Alliance panel.


The fact that you get no choice about recruiting Kaliyo would have been my biggest con initially, though story developments since then have shown that Bioware had a greater plan here that wasn't as trite as I expected it to be. Nonetheless one has to wonder if they couldn't have chosen another character for this. Kaliyo is just such an incredibly hard sell for light side characters... and even many dark side ones in my opinion. Do you really want to lead an anarchist and liar with a known history of betraying her benefactors into your super secret base? The nonchalance with which everyone treats this is just crazy.

In between these major pros and cons we have a whole lot of "meh". After keeping busy with Alliance alert missions in the months before chapter ten's release, many couldn't help but feel that its story felt like yet another one of those recruitment missions, just a bit longer. I can sort of see why Bioware needed something like this to be part of the storyline (since all the actual Alliance recruitment is optional, and it would be weird to go from having virtually no followers to having lots of them overnight), but it was still a valid criticism.

Also, there was way too much (boring) combat for what to amounted to about an hour's worth of content. While the devs clearly tried to make things more interesting with the introduction of sky turrets, the more erratic mob behaviour and the mini boss fights (which were okay really), it just wasn't good enough overall. All those skytroopers just felt like an unnecessary way of padding the length of the chapter that didn't really achieve the desired results.

However, things started to look up soon...

08/05/2016

My Eternal Championship Impressions

Along with a new story chapter, last Tuesday's patch introduced the Eternal Championship, a feature that had been hyped up for months, just to be postponed over and over again due to issues with bugs.

Now it's finally here and... I'm not sure what to think of it.

On the plus side, apparently they were able to iron out most of the bugs after all. I had to relog once during the story quest because Bowdaar didn't appear where he was supposed to be, but other than that that was it. The only other issue I had was not a bug per se, but simply bad design: there are several quests for the Eternal Championship that come from a terminal, but for some reason they were designed in such a manner that you have to pick them up in the opposite order in which they are listed... or you will end up with all your weeklies saying "pick up the main quest" (which you already have) and not actually progressing when you kill bosses. (This happened to me, prompting me to re-run the whole thing soon afterwards just to get the quest done. I suppose it's at least partially my fault for not paying closer attention to the mission instructions - but it's still unintuitive and daft to have it work that way.)

Since the sales pitch was that the Eternal Championship (which, somewhat annoyingly, can be shortened to EC, causing confusion with Explosive Conflict) was going to be content that would give solo players a chance to challenge themselves, similar to WoW's Proving Grounds or Brawler's Guild, I guessed (correctly) that it would be tuned for people playing dps characters... but I still decided to go in as a healer anyway, because that's just how I am.


I found the whole thing surprisingly challenging and died several times, despite of being in full 224 gear. Lack of dps was simply a problem. Even with my most faithful companion I only have an influence rank in the twenties, and even more importantly, some fights require an annoying amount of companion micro-management (if that's where your dps is coming from), with bosses temporarily becoming immune to damage, numerous add spawns, and all kinds of crap that you're supposed to move out of. As far as the latter goes, you can compensate somewhat as a healer, but making sure that your companion stands in the right place and attacks the right thing can be quite a nuisance. During my first run I used M1-4X (my highest influence companion), who is ranged... and he repeatedly nuked himself to death on bosses that had mechanics that meant that they could only be damaged in melee and would reflect everything outside of a small circle around them. On the brawler with two adds, I constantly had to change him from active to passive and back again to make him run into melee range of the constantly moving combatants. During my second run I used Choza Raabat, a melee companion, instead - this went a bit better in terms of control, but with an influence rank of only ten things felt very slow and he didn't always do enough damage to out-aggro my healing, forcing me to tank as well.

The weird thing is, I couldn't even tell you if I find the whole thing fun or not. Sometimes I got pretty frustrated by dying. "This is bull, how are you supposed to survive him hitting that hard when I can't even keep up with the damage as a healer in full 224? It's impossible to deal with all those adds at the same time!" And so on. But then I'd realise that there was some sort of trick that I'd been missing and then I felt kind of clever for sussing it out. For example on the last boss, when he summons the drones that shoot lasers, if you stand in exactly the right spot, they will all take each other out and you won't even have to lift a finger to get rid of them. It's just not that easy to get it exactly right.

I think I could see myself going back there on alts, especially of the dps variety, to see if I can do better, maybe get to understand the mechanics a bit more and learn from that. But not too often, to avoid frustration when I mess up. It also finally provides me with an incentive to raise my companion influence - on regular, run of the mill content I just didn't see it making that much of a difference. The fifteen minute run achievement however is certainly far out of my reach at the moment, and not just because simply loading in and out of the instance already takes a minute or so on my ageing PC.

03/05/2016

Nar Shaddaa and PvP Instances

This past weekend I decided to take my Ebon Hawk Commando through all of Nar Shaddaa (except for the bonus series, which for some reason is still restricted to level sixty and up). It was a stark reminder of why I wasn't too impressed by that planet even back in the day, and it's not just due to the corridor-like environments. Honestly, its storylines simply also aren't all that engaging. Talking solely about Republic side here, there was maybe one side quest I liked, and even the main story arc was a bit meh. I suppose the Jedi war hero gone bad was at least somewhat memorable, as were the Empire's plans to commit Evocii genocide, though the whole scenario isn't as meaningful if you haven't already played through Hutta on an Imperial character and know who the Evocii are. (Also, I burst into giggles when my character randomly called them "ee-VO-chee" once... gotta love those random voice acting inconsistencies that are still hidden in various corners of the game and break your immersion like whoa.)

I suppose the problem is that Nar Shaddaa just comes across as a crappy place to be. Most quests in the game are about dealing with unpleasant situations, but at least you generally get the impression that the planet you're on is still a place worth saving or at least worth being on. Whatever good sides Hutt Vegas is supposed to have, we don't really get to see them, and I just found myself wondering over and over again why all these people even bother to stay if crime lords, drug cartels and prisons are all there is.


While doing Blood Money, I ran into another player and the usual annoyance of there not being enough mobs for this quest for more than one person/group at a time. Then it occurred to me: I could use the new PvP instance system introduced in 4.3! Switching was as easy as transferring between any two instances and immediately I had the whole area to myself. If I'd had any fears of being forced to engage in actual PvP, these quickly turned out to be unfounded because a) the Nikto Sector is a Republic-only area so the PvP instance there is pretty redundant anyway and b) the population counter in the top left corner never went above four and I don't think things were much busier on Imp side. So, if you're one of those people who loves to shout that the game is dead, switching to the PvP instance on an RP server is the perfect new way to "prove" it!

I continued my questing in the PvP instance afterwards but never ran into another soul. In some ways it was kind of neat to have all the named mobs, chests, and basically everything to myself and feel like a true hero of the Repulic. On the other hand it got kind of lonely after a while. And it got me thinking about this whole PvP instance system as a whole. I suppose it's no real surprise that it's not overly popular on an RP server, but how has it been working out in other places?

As I couldn't find much commentary on the subject while googling, I decided to ask reddit. Most of the responses seemed to indicate that those select few that choose to switch to the PvP instances tend to do so for the same reason I did: lack of competition, whether it comes to quest mobs, gathering nodes or commander kills. Going there is like an insider tip, but they are certainly not being used for their intended purpose. Someone also pointed out that the feature wasn't widely advertised when it launched and isn't particularly intuitive, so we might see more interest in PvP instances over time, once more people have realised that they exist and understand how they work.

I was particularly curious about what happened on the PvP servers though and was pleased when someone confirmed that on the former PvP servers, the players' default focus stayed PvP when the patch happened. One has to wonder about the future though. I rolled up an alt on Tomb of Freedon Nadd just for science, and even though it's not marked as such on the server selection screen anymore, I got a warning that TOFN was a PvP server, and was I sure I wanted to go there? Yet when my character loaded in, her focus was set to PvE by default. Is this just for the starter worlds and changes later? If not, one would think that PvP servers are doomed to die out eventually, what with the lack of an obvious designation and new players being defaulted to PvE focus as they join.

Have you changed your focus from PvE to PvP or vice versa yet? Do you even care?