21/01/2017

Trying My Hand At Veteran KotET

When Bioware announced that story chapters would become repeatable in Knights of the Eternal Throne and come with an adjustable difficulty setting, I wasn't impressed, for reasons I don't want to fully rehash in this post. The bottom line was: I simply wasn't interested.

However, since KotET's launch I've had many friends talk about Veteran mode chapters in gushing tones, about how fun and challenging and interesting they are, which got me intrigued at least. Since I was planning to do another run through the story anyway for my detailed write-up of all the chapters, I thought that I might as well take my Guardian through it on Veteran mode. After the first two chapters, the best way to sum up my impressions so far in a single word would be: confused.

"Wrath and Ruin" barely even felt any different from story mode, causing me to pause early on to double-check that I hadn't accidentally started the chapter on easy difficulty after all. There was a random skytrooper that took off three quarters of my health with a single attack, which was a bit odd, but he still died just as easily. I finally started to notice a difference at the defense of the Tower of Prophecy, where I suffered a death, but I moved on easily after reviving. Similarly I managed to die on the walker section to the Shrine of Healing, but I actually managed to die there on story mode as well, so that was hardly a shocker either.

Then I started chapter two, and the first mob I encountered, an elite vine cat, pounced on me, taking off two thirds of my health in one hit, and before I'd even fully grasped what was going on I was dead. Well, that was different! I proceeded to wipe another couple of times before I decided to level up my temporary companion's influence level into the twenties at least while I waited for cooldowns to come up again between attempts. Eventually I ended up having success by setting her to tank, as I couldn't control the spawning small adds fast enough for her not to instantly get mauled if she was healing. In the end she still died, but at that point the vine cat didn't have much health left and I could burn it down using my own cooldowns. Incidentally, its death caused my Guardian to hit level 70. Best ding ever.


In this screenshot, you can see the string of vine cat deaths in the combat log before my final victory.

By now I had been warned that the next fight would be even harder, though funnily enough that didn't turn out to be true (for me, anyway). I still wiped on it a couple of times, but that was more due to trying to be overly clever with mechanics than anything else. In the end I just made sure to set one of the assassin droids as my focus target and put my companion on passive at the start so that she wouldn't get any of the initial aggro (I had her back to healing for this otherwise). Then I hit saber reflect just before the long cast went off, set her back to actively healing me, and everything after that was pretty tank and spank.

Up next: a tentacle monster tomb horror. This mere gold mob didn't actually have that much health, but hit like a truck and so did its tentacle add spawns. I eventually bested it by once again resorting to letting my companion tank and then following a very precise rotation throughout the fight: Send her in first, then use my leap to interrupt the horror's first, long cast. Do some damage, then interrupt the horror's first slam or whatever it's called with Awe, do some more dps, then kick. After that, take a step back as the tentacles should be about to spawn (or they were in my case at least) so you can kill the first one instantly. The second one will probably get a hit or two on your companion in, bringing her low. After killing it, taunt the boss so you can take some pressure off your tank - she will quickly taunt it back anyway. Now just nuke and you should be able to kill the thing before the second spawn of tentacles can do much. That's what worked for me anyway.

But oh, that last boss. I had been told that it was going to be hard and expected as much, considering three golds were tougher than the usual fare even on story mode. The first couple of attempts I died within seconds of pulling, before the introductory voice-over had even had time to finish. It seemed impossible. But of course it's not: It's just extremely unforgiving and you need to learn all the abilities featured in the fight and when and how to counter them.

That said, I never made it further than killing one of the mercenaries before dying myself. I spent an entire afternoon on trying to learn the fight, and at one point also invested in some gear upgrades and getting my companion's influence rank up into the forties. But it actually didn't seem to make that much of a difference - I couldn't out-live, out-heal or out-dps those abilities; if I mucked up the execution I was just dead no matter what. And with three mobs firing off different moves with a certain degree of randomness, I just couldn't keep up. Every time I'd die, I'd think: "D'oh, if only I hadn't missed that one interrupt / hadn't interrupted too early / hadn't lost aggro to my companion just then etc. I would have had it!" But I just couldn't reach the degree of perfect execution that seemed to be required. After spending several hundred thousand credits on repair bills, I gave in and simply asked my pet tank to help me. I'd still like to give it another go myself another time, but since the main purpose of that playthrough was to remind myself of all the chapter's details for my chapter by chapter discussion, I didn't want to be held up forever by being unable to beat that one fight.

Here's some things I did learn and which might still be useful for other players, particularly Guardians and Juggernauts:

- I got the impression that you're better off doing these veteran chapters on characters below max level, as the tuning is different then, requiring somewhat less gear. Going in as a freshly dinged 70 is about the worst you could do.

- Also, I strongly suspect that it's a lot easier on a ranged character, since all three opponents love to jump around, reducing your dps while you have to chase after them if you are melee.

- The most important ability you have to worry about is the Leader's Hail of Bolts. It has a huge cone and at 70 it will take off nearly your entire health bar in one cast, so it needs interrupting asap, every time. He only ever casts it after having done a pull followed by a fire sweep, but sometimes he follows these moves up with something else, so if you accidentally waste your interrupt on the wrong thing, you're toast as well. You definitely want to have him as your focus target at all times so you have at least a clue when an interrupt is due.

- The Leader's Ultimate Shot must never be allowed to go through, as it's an insta-kill, however it can simply be interrupted by hitting him. As a Guardian, you can also saber-reflect it, but you have to be careful not to lose aggro to your companion at a bad time, plus if your saber reflect works too well, it pushes him into his next phase too early and you're dead as well. Either way you want him to spend as much time as possible on simply casting this, because it's time during which he isn't doing anything else.

- You have to kill the Mercs before killing the Leader. If he drops to 70%, he starts spreading fire everywhere, which spells doom if his adds are also still jumping around.

- I found it helpful to have my companion on passive for the first couple of seconds, so she wouldn't instantly get aggro from everything. Once you put her back on active, make sure to sic her on one of the Mercs, so she doesn't go after the Leader and keeps interrupting his Ultimate Shot when you don't want her to. I think you also need to set her to passive for a bit during the Leader's fire phase, but I never really got that far.

Maybe some of my readers will have some more helpful comments.

Anyway, after these two chapters I'm not sure what to think of Veteran mode other than that the tuning is obviously all over the place. Challenge is good, but randomly switching between "barely any different from story mode" and "not sure if even technically possible with that class at that level" is less so. I'm motivated to continue to go through the rest of the chapters on Veteran just to see what they are like but... yeah. Bioware's idea of providing more challenging content for solo players seems rather haphazard right now.

18/01/2017

KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 2: Run for the Shadows

Time for another detailed and spoiler-laden discussion of a Knights of the Eternal Throne chapter. We're up to chapter two! Though if you missed it...



The Story

The moment that many of us have been waiting for since 4.0 has finally arrived: We get to find out what's going on in the Sith Empire and the Republic. Well, one of them anyway, as the Outlander visits Empress Acina on Dromund Kaas to discuss the possibility of an alliance. With the Alliance. This is going to be a bit of a pain to talk about, isn't it?

You, Theron and Lana are welcomed by a certain Moff Minister Lorman, who starred in the Annihilation spin-off novel, but even though I actually read that book and even wrote about it on here, I have to admit that I had zero memory of him and wouldn't even have made the connection if someone else hadn't pointed it out to me. He takes you to Empress Acina, who welcomes you quite warmly and quickly gets annoyed by Lorman's comments, urging you to have a private chat with her in her personal shuttle. You agree and the two of you go on a ride across the jungles of Dromund Kaas. I have to say that first scene where the camera slowly zooms in on you inside the shuttle while it whizzes across the canopy amazes me every time! Even if it's a bit off from a logic perspective that Acina doesn't even bother to take a single bodyguard...


While Acina tries to convince you that allying with her is a good idea, the shuttle suddenly gets shot down. You manage to jump out before it crashes but find that communications aren't working as they should, so you can't call for help. Meanwhile, you (the player) see an incredibly chipper Minister Lorman tell Theron and Lana that you and the Empress have died in a tragic accident.

When you and Acina reach the shuttle crash site, you find that the emergency beacon is destroyed and a party of GenoHaradan scouts is looking for you... to make sure that you're dead. At the same time, Theron receives a call from former Republic Chancellor Leontyne Saresh, also offering her condolences about the Outlander's "death" and suggesting that her leadership skills would be a big boon to the Alliance. Theron and Lana say eff to that and decide that they really need to find you (alive, preferably) as soon as possible, even if the bad storms will make it difficult.

Meanwhile you traipse through the rainy jungles of Dromund Kaas with Acina to find the GenoHaradan's camp. When you do, you also find a datapad which reveals their employer: none other than Saresh herself. (Republic players who did the story mission for the Scum and Villainy operation probably already suspected this, as Saresh was shown to be their last known employer back then.) Immediately after this discovery a shuttle with more GenoHaradan shows up and they try to blast you straight from the sky, but you manage to scurry away into a nearby ancient Sith tomb before its entrance collapses behind you.


On the Eternal Throne, we see Scorpio informing Vaylin that rumour has it that you're dead. Vaylin shrugs this off as obviously false, but Scorpio informs her that the upheaval caused by the Outlander's disappearance is the perfect opportunity to strike a blow against the Alliance. Back in Kaas City, Lana and Theron's attempt to sneak off to search for you is thwarted by some guards that Minister Lorman posted in anticipation of this move.

You and Acina make it through the ancient Sith tomb, avoiding a bunch of traps and vicious critters along the way, just to run into the leader of the GenoHaradan accompanied by "Minister" Lorman at the end. As soon as you defeat the GenoHaradan, Lorman tells you to stay back as he claims to have your friends as hostages, but when he tries to prove this via holocall, it turns out that Lana and Theron have easily overwhelmed their captors. They tell you that Saresh is already on her way to Odessen to instate herself as the Alliance's new leader, leaving you to only deal with Lorman before hurrying back yourself: You can let him go, encourage Acina to make him her slave, or team up with her to execute him.

On Odessen, you bust in on Saresh, just as she announces to your Alliance that you're dead. She panics and tries to run, but of course you stop her with ease. She expresses no regrets about her actions, and you get to punch or even kill her, though you can also simply take her prisoner. Theron will love you for it either way!


Acina calls in one more time to apologise for everything that happened on Dromund Kaas and asks whether you'll still agree to an alliance with the Sith Empire, which you can either agree to or refuse.

The chapter ends with a view of a small freighter being chased by Eternal Fleet ships and a female voice calling for help. The Gravestone appears and Koth comes to its rescue, but as he takes the damaged freighter in for repairs, we see that its crew consists of none other than Scorpio, who was merely impersonating the ship's former captain, Vaylin and some of her troops.

My Thoughts

I was one of those people who has been waiting to get back to the story of our original factions, so I was initially delighted by this chapter, but I finished it with a sense of bitter-sweetness.

While it's great to return to an iconic starter planet like Dromund Kaas and see for yourself how the Sith Empire is holding up under its new Empress' reign, the chapter only goes on to cement your position as an outsider in this brave new post-KotFE world. Acina lectures you about how the Sith used to do things vs. how they do them now, which leaves Imperial characters wanting to scream: "I know all of this! I'm one of you, remember?" There is no way of seeking true reconciliation if you still consider yourself loyal to the Sith Empire.


While the chapter focuses on the Sith, Republic characters aren't really much better off in terms of connecting to their old home. As a trooper in particular I found it absurd that Saresh would seek to assassinate me after I had defeated one of the Empire's greatest generals in service to her, but I don't imagine it feels much better if you're a different flavour of hero of the Republic. Didn't she give the consular a medal at the end of the original class story?

The ending on Odessen feels like an attempt at fan service targeted at those who've expressed a strong dislike for Saresh for ages, but to me her blatant attempt at taking over just rang hollow. Yes, she was set up to be a dislikeable character, but her background has always been that she suffered a lot at the hands of the Sith Empire and is therefore willing to go to extreme measures to defeat them. I didn't feel that simply trying to take over the Alliance in what's portrayed as a mere grab for power fit her previous portrayal at all, and shunting her off the stage by either imprisoning or executing her struck me as a waste of a great character. Either way, the new Supreme Chancellor sends you a letter afterwards, in which he takes a similarly distant approach as Acina, talking about respecting your sovereignty and stuff. Why won't you let me be friends with you again? /cry

Those bigger issues aside, "Run for the Shadows" is another chapter that finds a good balance between story and gameplay. The character of Lorman is pretty funny and his over-the-top outrage at not being addressed by the correct title was a genuine laugh out loud moment to me. The Sith tomb also contains a bonus mission that requires the use of binoculars, which can additionally be used to spot and avoid traps. I completely missed that second use the first time around and just stepped into every flame and onto every spike like a noob, but it's nice to have another optional bit of puzzling thrown into the mix.

Speaking of traps though, what's that about Koth running straight into a trap...?

14/01/2017

Exploitarama

Hi, my name is Shintar and I've never knowingly participated in an exploit in Star Wars: The Old Republic. If certain parts of the player base are to be believed, that apparently makes me part of a tiny minority because "everyone's doing it".

I've never even written a post about the subject of exploiting (as far as I can remember), mostly because I find it to be such a depressing topic. It's also oddly controversial, even though you'd think that it really shouldn't be (what, you're saying cheating isn't bad?), and to be honest I tend to shy away from writing anything too controversial on here most of the time.

Nonetheless I've been on the sidelines of a fair number of exploits, and they have always been thoroughly disheartening affairs from my point of view. They tend to bring out the worst in people, as they brag about cheating their way to the top and may even try to force others into breaking the rules against their will, as poor Mox described on the podcast last week when he was forcefully prevented from trying to pull a certain boss the normal way.

What makes it worse is that Bioware is really not very good at dealing with exploiters. An ex-guildie of mine farmed implants from Nefra via an exploit back in the day, and when the subject was brought up in conversation with him recently, he still laughed about how he was never punished for it. During the infamous Coratanni bug, they did hand out some punishments, but I recall someone who was affected saying that while something had been done to his account, his illegitimately acquired main hand weapon wasn't even removed... or something similarly awkward and ineffective, I wouldn't swear by the details. The point was that the exploit had still been worth it for him as the punishment didn't counter the reward. And now we've reached a new low (or high I suppose, if you're into that kind of thing) with Eric Musco outright telling people on the forums that exploiting is okay.

Don't get me wrong: I do agree that this latest exploit (which did not grant you any extra loot, but caused one half of a two boss encounter in a small group instance to instantly fall over dead) gave relatively little benefit, so I didn't really expect them to get out the ban hammer or anything. But by not even bothering with as much as a slap on the wrist for the worst offenders, they are basically giving people green light to exploit as much as they want going forward. Oh sure, strictly speaking, Eric still says that you shouldn't. But that's an appendix to a post in which he states that there is an exploit, they can totally tell who intentionally exploited as opposed to triggering the effect by accident, but they still aren't going to do anything about it. In fact, they aren't going to fix it for another week, so go knock yourself out.

I kind of suspect that this stance is more the result of some sort of painful cost-benefit calculation than a firm conviction that nobody deserved punishment (meaning that it would take too much time to weed out the worst of the bad apples, they might not currently have a way to implement partial CXP rollbacks or whatever). However, that doesn't change that they are making fools out of those of us who follow the rules and have in the past tried to convince others to do the same. If you told anyone not to exploit Fractured, that person can now laugh in your face, and rightly so - because Bioware has their back, not yours. Not to mention that if actually punishing exploiters appropriately is too much hassle right now, why should we expect them to make time for it in the future?

I'd like to say that I have some sympathy for Bioware here because they aren't really big into competitive gaming, and ultimately exploiting is all about gaining a competitive advantage, so maybe it's something they don't really "get". However, they've been running this game for more than five years at this point, and I really would have expected them to have picked up a trick or two by now.

Unfortunately, I suspect that things are only going to get worse, partially because of this incident encouraging more bad behaviour, but also because of the nature of Galactic Command. Pre-5.0, they at least only really had to worry about operations and to some degree PvP as areas where abusing a bug could actually gain you a significant leg up. With everything being endgame on the other hand, everything also becomes a potential target for exploiting. They are not off to a good start in terms of keeping up.

11/01/2017

Shintar Goes (Has Gone) Podcasting!

In my ever-continuing attempts to try communicating with people via different social media, from Twitter to YouTube to joining Traitine on his stream, I've now finally taken the step into podcasting! Well, I've dipped my toes in I guess. And it was less me making a decision and more Rav being kind and inviting me. I was on Corellian Run Radio last week, OK?
For reference, the segment where they interview me starts at 36:26 - not that I wouldn't recommend listening to the first half of the show as well as it featured some very interesting discussion too - the currently ongoing exploit involving the Fractured uprising among other things...

I actually got quite nervous when it was finally time to go live, worried that I would stumble over my own words or accidentally talk over people. The first did happen a couple of times (here's hoping that maybe they edited that out, but I won't go listen to an hour of myself talking just to find out), but the latter I managed to successfully avoid, though there were a couple of slightly longer than needed awkward pauses when I wasn't sure whether it was my turn to say something or not!

Still, it was a very exciting and fun experience and I was extra pleased that several loyal guildies and friends showed up to listen to the live show. It seemed appropriate that the giveaways that were held during that time happened to be won by Traitine and Calph.

Still find writing much easier than speaking though!

09/01/2017

KotET Chapter by Chapter - Chapter 1: Wrath and Ruin

I've said that Knights of the Eternal Throne's story left me with a lot of thoughts that I still needed to put into written words, and I've decided that there are definitely enough of them to warrant a separate post for each chapter. I might still write a post summarising my feelings about the story as a whole afterwards; but we'll see. For now, get ready for some spoilers as I review KotET chapter one!


The Story

Knights of the Eternal Throne starts in a similar way to Fallen Empire: with a new cinematic (the Betrayed one), followed my an opening crawl explaining what's currently going on. (See, Rogue One, Star Wars games have had opening crawls without being part of the main trilogy for decades! You didn't have to be shy.) A bit of a time jump between KotFE chapter 16 and this one is implied, though its exact length isn't specified and it doesn't appear to have been too long. Vaylin's just had time to establish herself as new empress and get a change of clothes. Oh, and she's decided to invade Voss, which you've come to defend.

Theron is already in Voss-Ka and watching everything getting blown to bits when the Alliance joins the fight properly, with the player getting treated to some great space battle shots in the process. You land in a shuttle with a bunch of Mandalorian troops and start carving your way through the besieged city. This is somewhat reminiscent of the defense of Darth Marr's ship in KotFE chapter one, meaning you're essentially running in circles, watching things get blown up all around you, while getting directed from one objective to the next. There are a couple of neat Easter eggs here if you completed the Star Fortress story arcs, as Rokuss (Voss) will basically auto-complete a bonus mission for you and Leyta (Tatooine) will offer her sniper skills as an extra button to press during one of the early boss fights (credit to Calph for spotting that one).

Eventually you rendezvous with Theron at the Tower of Prophecy, where Valkorion also reveals that he's rattling around in your head again. After defending the tower from several waves of Vaylin's troops (featuring, among other things, some of her new "Horizon Guard", which appear to have partially replaced the Knights of Zakuul as her personal elite fighters), you meet up with Sana-Rae and receive a distress call that reveals the reason Vaylin decided to attack Voss: Senya is hiding at the Shrine of Healing, trying to heal and restore Arcann. However, things are pretty dire for her with the Eternal Fleet pressing the attack. For good or for ill, you travel to the Shrine of Healing to meet with her.


You need to make the final approach on the ground, and Torian provides you with a walker to get through Vaylin's ground forces in front of the shrine, which means that you get to go through an interesting vehicle section stomping skytroopers to death. On the way you run into some Voss and Gormak working together now that they have a common enemy in the Eternal Fleet. Your way appears blocked for a while, but Koth shows up with the Gravestone to give you some breathing room - yes, even if he left you before. In fact, the scene seems a little odd if you didn't fall out with him, as everyone seems kind of surprised by his appearance, even when they really shouldn't be.

In the shrine, you find Senya behind a force field, which I get is a plot device to make sure that you have to talk to her first even if you want to kill her, but there's still some weird space-time stuff going on here, as regardless of what you say to her, there will suddenly be troops between you, either Mandalorians or Zakuulans... how did they get there? But never mind. Vaylin calls in just to taunt you some more and Scorpio orders the fleet to bombard the shrine directly. Senya urges you to help her save Arcann and you get to say yes or no.

If you decide to help her, you get to fight off some enemy forces for her, buying her some time to complete the Voss healing ritual for Arcann. It's still really rushed though, and she has to offer up some of her own life force to make it work, causing her to pass out afterwards. If you vow to kill her and Arcann still, some of your troops somehow get ahead of you and you eventually run in on Senya duelling Lana and get to take her down (Senya that is, not Lana). She's a pretty tough cookie even on story mode I have to say! I can't imagine that she goes down easily on veteran. When she dies, Valkorion comes out for a few last words and they share an oddly touching moment before she expires.


Either way, Arcann wakes (healed, or started by the mayhem surrounding his mother's death) and makes a run for it since he's slightly delirious and confused. You arrive just in time to see him take off in a convenient shuttle, and Koth is too busy to chase him down for you.

At this point Vaylin gives the ultimate kill command to the fleet (one has to wonder why she waited this long to do so), but suddenly a bunch of Imperial ships show up and join the battle. Being free-willed now, the Eternal Fleet captains are not willing to duke it out to the death and retreat, much to Vaylin's chagrin. If you killed Senya, she's also pissed that she didn't get to do so herself.

Lana suggests that the Empire might have come to help. Valkorion pops up once again to make you feel insecure about your position and tell you that you must seize the Eternal Throne for yourself if you want to overcome the threat of Arcann and Vaylin. Shortly afterwards, the Imperial fleet calls - it's Empress Acina herself, proposing an alliance between the Sith Empire and your Alliance. You can express scepticism about her motives but eventually agree to a meeting on Dromund Kaas to hear her out in person.

My Thoughts

Initially, I honestly wasn't too enthralled by KotET's chapter one. Despite of jumping right into the action with some impressive battle scenes, it reminded me too much of KotFE chapter one and its very noticeable attempts to also be a tutorial for players who bought a max-level character token. The return to Voss also evoked mixed feelings in me. On the one hand, I was actually happy to go back to an existing planet and look at how things were going over there (I don't care if other people disparage it as recycling), but on the other hand it was kind of heart-breaking to see beautiful Voss-Ka laid to ruin. I always found the Voss as a species a bit annoying, but they didn't deserve that. I was kind of reminded of my first impressions of the Assault on Tython and Korriban Incursion flashpoints. Can we go back to a familiar location without it getting completely wrecked some time, please?


However, the moment I got to the walker section, I realised that this was going to be a bit different. I'm neither a big fan of vehicle fights nor do I hate them, but the fact that mechanics like these haven't really been used in SWTOR prior to the HK bonus chapter made it interesting if nothing else. Even though I died a couple of times on my first attempt (despite it being story mode), I found stomping around in the walker to be decent fun. In hindsight, considering that there are more vehicle sections in KotET, the one in chapter one actually strikes me as the weakest though, due to how unintuitive it is. For example if you don't follow the winding road to the Shrine exactly, Theron won't tell you about the repair spots, so you have to figure that out for yourself; and I took a lot of damage from the "bubble troopers" until I realised that they could only be defeated by stomping on them.

Seeing Voss and Gormak work together just like that actually felt a bit disappointing to me, because the Eternal Empire certainly hasn't been the first outsider to threaten them - just the most powerful I suppose. It's not that I don't want them to make peace with each other, but it just seemed to have come too easily.

Of course, the last part of the chapter is where things get really interesting. KotFE received a lot of criticism for many of its choices not feeling meaningful enough, and you can tell that they tried a lot harder in KotET. There is a bit of a delay until you get to reach Senya for dramatic reasons, but if you wanted her to die, you do actually get to kill her this time. That Arcann gets away yet again is tolerable, with the hope that you will get to decide his fate this time before the story's over. And then of course we have the Empire showing up to save the day as a surprise twist - wherever will that lead?

06/01/2017

3 Simple Ways of Improving Galactic Starfighter

"What's this? A post about Galactic Starfighter? What has gotten into you?" Wellll... one thing Galactic Command has achieved is that it has made me dip my toes back into some types of content that I hadn't really engaged with in a while, GSF being one of them. I'm still not exactly a huge fan, but at level 70, each match provides pretty nice Command XP, and doing the daily mission on occasion makes for a nice break from my more common CXP farming activities (such as ops and regular warzones).

However, it also hasn't taken long for me to be reminded of all the things I don't like about GSF, such as the gameplay being so highly skill-based that a single guy can pretty much solo an entire enemy team if they are noobish enough. (I was on the losing side of a death match where a single enemy racked up 38 kills.) Not to mention that after three years, even I'm ready for a new map, gameplay mode or ship type. However, those are things that are suggested by GSF fans all the time and seem to require too many resources to be worth it from Bioware's point of view. So let me instead talk about three things that would be (comparatively) easy to fix as far as I'm concerned.


1. Let people fiddle with their ships and loadouts while in the queue

I'm not a big fan of playing "UI Wars" and another one of GSF's weaknesses (in my opinion) is that there's a big "UI hump" to get over if you want to play anything other than the default ships and loadouts. Which new player actually enjoys clicking their way through all those boxes to read dozens of ability and talent descriptions? But I get that the information has to be somewhere.

You know what would be the best time to familiarise myself with all these features in small chunks? When I'm queued for a GSF match! At least from my current experience, the queues tend to be long enough that you don't just want to stand there doing nothing (30+ seconds) but at the same time short enough that it's not worth running off to do dailies or anything while you wait. But of course - INSERT KLAXON NOISE HERE - the moment you queue for a GSF match, all the other items in the GSF UI become locked and can't be interacted with anymore.

I'm guessing that there is some kind of tech reason for this, but I'm not sure what it is, considering that your loadout doesn't seem to factor into the matchmaking and you can change ships during the match anyway. Either way, even though it's only a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things, it still ticks me off to no end, because even after all this time, I keep trying to interact with the UI while queued ("Oh, I have a lot of unspent ship requisition! Ah right, I guess that will have to wait until after the match...") just to be foiled for reasons that don't make sense to me.

2. Let new players access all ship types or at least choose their own two out of four

This one's not really for me personally, because thanks to having been a subscriber when GSF first came out (or at least I think that's the promotion it's from), all my characters have access to at least a free gunship at the start. I'm absolutely hopeless at flying either a strike fighter or a scout, so that free gunship is my only shot at having some fun, even if I'm not very good at it.

I think it makes zero sense to limit new players to the two ship types that require the most skill to play at even a mediocre level. I get that Bioware was hoping that people would buy more ships from the Cartel Market or whatever, but I think we've had ample time to see that if players are off to a bad enough start with GSF, they won't even bother to stick with the game mode long enough to contemplate acquiring more ships. If you want them to warm up to starfighting, you need to give them the option to start at a level of play that is actually appropriate for their skill.

3. During the battles themselves, the UI needs to give better feedback

One of my biggest peeves as an eternally somewhat hapless GSF player is when I don't understand what's happening to me. Most often this will manifest itself in my ship appearing to get "stunned", meaning that I slow to a crawl and none of my abilities will fire even though they're not on cooldown. Obviously this is connected to a certain type of attack from a certain kind of enemy ship, but I'll be damned if I know what it is, because my only indicators are tiny debuff icons above my ship's health, and it's not like in the normal game where I have a cursor that I can use to hover over them to read the tooltip. I guess I'm just supposed to memorise the tiny pictures and then try to find their equivalents in the loadout menu afterwards?


Bad stuff about to happen, that much I know.

This is dumb, especially considering that there is giant text floating across the screen to inform me that Gsffarmbot has killed Ràyé Skywàlkér on the other end of the map and my co-pilot loves to rattle off helpful sound clips like: "We're hit!" No shit, sherlock...

They should use these means of communication to actually convey relevant and non-obvious information to the player, such as when you've been affected by a buff or a debuff, but I guess that's just a bit too much to ask...

Anyway, I know that even these things will likely remain nothing but pipe dreams as they would still require actual coding time and Bioware doesn't seem to have much of that to spare for GSF either. I just felt like getting these thoughts off my chest.

03/01/2017

Crafting Is (Not) The Answer

One of the big questions on mine and others' minds in the run-up to 5.0 was how the changes to crew skills were going to interact with Galactic Command and whether they would maybe significantly alleviate the RNG issues present in the system. A month in, my own answer to this question is "maybe, kind of, but not really", which probably requires a bit more explanation.

What I Like About 5.0 Crafting

First off, I do like that the changes made crafting a significant source of gear again. Crew skills have slowly been diminishing in significance over time - I remember when I used to craft and sell low-level augments, but who even bothers with those anymore when everything scales and it barely takes an hour to out-level your old gear? With 5.0 crew skills are back in the game as something relevant, at least at endgame.

I also like the way collecting schematics is almost a little mini-game of its own. I don't usually consider myself a collector (I collect neither mounts nor pets for example) but for some reason I enjoy having all the crafting recipes, even if I don't plan on actually using them all. I've got a spreadsheet to keep track of everything my various crafting alts have learned already and maintain a thread on my guild's forums where others can add what they can make.


Screenshot of said thread from our guild forums.

Crew skill schematics cannot be traded to other players as they bind to legacy on pick-up, but they can drop from Command crates as well as from the crafting crates you get for completing various PvP missions, and ops bosses seem to be guaranteed to drop at least one schematic too, usually for mods and enhancements from the earlier bosses, with the last boss of each op dropping the schematic for either an armoring, a hilt or a barrel. Schematics to craft unmoddable weapons wholesale only drop from Command crates, probably because Bioware knew that many raiders with their love for min-maxing would scoff at items with such unoptimised stat distributions. (Personally, I still like collecting those too.)

Since ops bosses also drop no gear (as of now), crew skill schematics have kind of become "the drop to get excited about" instead. The other day we did Nefra (the first boss in Dread Palace, who has a reputation for being very easy) on nightmare mode and she dropped a tier three mod schematic that our tanks immediately identified as the best in slot for tanking. They got quite excited about this and my pet tank immediately set out to get lots of them crafted.

What I Don't Like About 5.0 Crafting

While crew skill schematics are exciting to some, we also have members who don't care about crafting at all, and to them bosses basically drop nothing of interest at all right now. They'll be happy for others when they get a useful schematic, but that only really works the first time it happens, as one person getting it is enough for the whole guild (strictly speaking), and any additional copies are just a bonus. But even if you do care about crafting in general, that feeling of replacing the enhancement in your legs with something crafted can feel a bit lacklustre compared to say, prying a whole new weapon from a dead boss's hands.

I also fear that over time, crafting anything but the third tier of items will become completely pointless. People do it now because access to tier three anything is limited by the CXP grind and they'd rather have a small upgrade than nothing, but ultimately anyone will be able to craft nightmare tier gear without having to kill any nightmare bosses, so why would you make the lesser versions still? Sure, the material cost goes up as you go up in tiers, but access to materials is also only gated by time/grind so everyone can get them eventually.

More than anything else though, the system is still too heavily affected by the RNG of the Galactic Command crates. Pre-5.0, we had this vision of maybe filling that one slot that you can't get to drop from the crates with a crafted item, but in practice this isn't how it's played out for me and many others. I made it through the entirety of Command tier one with only filling half my gear slots with new stuff, and while filling the rest with crafted items would have been possible, there was always this feeling of: "But surely something must be dropping for one of these other slots soon? How bad can my luck possibly be?" Eventually I gave in and crafted myself some new implants at least since my main is a Biochemist, just to have them replaced by slightly better greens as soon as I hit Command tier two. Basically, trying to fill any missing slots with crafted items is as likely to help you as it is to cause more frustration, if thanks to the wonders of RNG it turns out that your time and money were wasted because the next day you get something better from a crate after all.

In short, it feels to me like the revamped crafting system mostly works OK on its own merits, but instead of helping to solve the problems of Galactic Command, it's gets bogged down by the same system's flaws instead.

This is my impression after one month anyway - there is obviously still a chance that things might shake out a bit differently over time. What have been your own experiences with crew skills post-5.0?

31/12/2016

The Hammer Station Experiment

What with 2016 coming to an end and me going through my blog archives for my look back at another year of blogging, I was reminded of how I was engaged in my "flashpoint levelling experiment" around this time last year. With that still in mind, a random comment on Reddit (I couldn't find it anymore now) caught my attention the other day, seeing how it once again claimed that tactical (now veteran) flashpoints are still way too hard. The reason this complaint stood out to me was that it was oddly specific in citing Hammer Station as being impossible to complete for a group of level 15 characters these days (which is the lowest level at which you can start doing most flashpoints), even though it was originally designed for levels 15-21. I also remembered a supposedly new player posting a similar lament some months ago, claiming that he and his friends had been unable to make it past one of the early trash pulls even though they'd gone in with a proper trinity group.

All of this sounded kind of hyperbolic to me, but I do know from experience that group composition and level can certainly make a massive difference to your experience of a random tactical flashpoint run. But how to know for sure just how bad it is with a full group of level 15s? It's not like you're randomly going to get a group like that through the group finder... fortunately my guildies came to the rescue and agreed to support me with yet another one of my random projects.

I asked three of them to level a new character to 15 (and no further!) on Tomb of Freedon Nadd, where none of us had a legacy already, therefore ensuring that none of us would benefit from any legacy-wide buffs such as the stat increases you get for having collected all the datacrons. Of course we couldn't precisely reproduce the new player experience like-for-like, since we can't "un-know" what we know about things like pulls and tactics, but I tried to at least up the difficulty a bit by imposing the rule that nobody was allowed to pick an advanced class that had any healing abilities, because having a healer is easy mode, right?

It was therefore with great excitement that we ventured forth today with a group consisting of a Vanguard (me), a Shadow (my pet tank), a Sentinel (Calph) and a Gunslinger (all dps) to brave the challenges of Hammer Station at level 15. And of course I recorded it, because what good is an experiment if you can't share the results with anyone?



If you don't want to watch the entirety of our silly half-hour romp, let me point you at some of the highlights:

5:11 - "The Pull of Doom"
9:50 - 1st boss
17:50 - 2nd boss
21:06 - Champion turrets at the bridge
25:25 - 3rd and final boss

Actually, it was a lot easier than I expected - I certainly anticipated a lot more deaths on trash with us having no healing abilities whatsoever. There were only two pulls that gave us trouble though: the early "Pull of Doom" highlighted above, which everyone who's ever done Hammer Station probably knows because it was the most painful pull in the instance even at launch. We had to hurl ourselves against that one and wipe twice, slowly reducing its size by killing off some of the weaker mobs before dying ourselves. The other one was the pull of two champion turrets just before the laser bridge, where we could only just kill one of them before wiping and then had to run in again to kill the second one. The first and third boss could have been tough I suppose if we hadn't known how to react to the mechanics and when to click the kolto stations (in fact on the first boss I had a brief moment of panic when we ran out of kolto stations to click from going through them too quickly).

Still, dying a couple of times is a far cry from "impossible for a group of level 15s". I'm not saying it can be done without dying if you have the sort of group composition we did, and I don't know how a group of level 15s would hold up in any of the other tactical/veteran flashpoints (considering how quickly you level up, it would be hard to test this for every single one of them), as I've observed previously that the tuning can vary a lot from one flashpoint to another. Hammer Station though? Definitely still working as intended and doable at level 15. I'm just not sure about those double loot drops...

28/12/2016

Those Dark vs. Light World Bosses

About ten days before Christmas, Bioware sent out a survey to many SWTOR players to quiz them about their opinions on the newest expansion - you bet I used that to also tell them through this more official channel that I don't like (the current implementation) of Galactic Command! What gave me pause though was that they specifically asked you to rate what they apparently considered all the major new expansion features, and one of them was "Dark vs. Light boss battles" (or something to that effect), something that had almost completely passed me by until then.

When the new server-wide Dark vs. Light system was first announced, I didn't have much of an opinion on it because I honestly thought it just sounded confusing. I was hoping that seeing it in action would make everything that much clearer, but that didn't work out so well either. The sheer amount of times we've had conversations like the following in guild chat or on TeamSpeak:

A: So I get a token every time I open a box?
B: No, when you earn a box, but only if your side is winning.
A: So like right now?
B: No, while the light side is on its way to winning right now, only the one hour "victory state" after hitting rank five counts.
A: Okay... but what do I even do with the things?

The bosses that were supposed to spawn during the victory state didn't even enter into it (probably at least partially because of the heavy emphasis on Galactic Command during the previews and how nothing was going to drop any actually useful items anymore). So it was with some curiosity that I eventually suggested at the end of an ops night that my guild should have a look at them, as we had about twenty minutes of ops time left (which isn't enough to start anything new) and the dark side had recently entered a victory state.

We eventually found two of the new bosses on Tatooine, called Erdi the Relentless and Tormentor Urdig. I recorded and uploaded the fights to YouTube, because I thought they might be useful to someone out there and I couldn't find anything else about them other than a mention in the Dulfy guide when I googled their names.





We did get both of them down on the first attempt (and as I understand it there wouldn't have been a chance at a second attempt as they despawn if they get an opportunity to reset after the first pull), but we did suffer several deaths and the outgoing damage was certainly considerable. They also had about three major abilities each which seemed to have been borrowed from existing operations bosses seemingly at random: Tormentor Urdig for example had what looked like Dread Master Raptus' Force Execution at his command. With this in mind, the bosses certainly didn't strike me as designed for your average general chat pug, even if their fickle way of spawning seems to make them more suitable targets for such transient groups than for a pre-scheduled ops night.

They did seem like worthwhile targets though, as they dropped a reasonably sized CXP pack for everyone in the group (up to sixteen I believe) as well as a light side token (if you were light side too, since they were dark side bosses). We were just annoyed that the achievements to kill them appeared to be bugged as neither was ticked off anyone's list successfully.

Still, there's your new group content, folks! You just need to know where to look for it I guess. I'm actually really intrigued by these now and hope that I'll be able to persuade my guildies to have a go at all of them sooner or later, if for no other reason than to see the fights.

25/12/2016

Rogue One

I'm a bit late to the party with this one - what kind of self-respecting Star Wars fan waits almost a week to see the latest installment in the franchise? One whose partner was too busy to see it right away I guess... but I did finally see Rogue One this week.

The spoiler-free version is that I liked it. I've always loved the Star Wars universe as a whole, with my interest not being limited to Jedi and lightsabers (that's why I play a trooper!), so seeing a film that tells the story of a bunch of "normal" people in a Star Wars setting was right up my alley. I've also seen people say that Rogue One seems to be made for fans who enjoyed the original trilogy as kids and have been longing for a grittier and more adult Star Wars film targeted at where they are now, and I do agree that the film hits that spot very well. Personally I just felt that it did the whole "grit" thing almost a bit too well, to the point where I actually found it pretty exhausting emotionally, as I'm a huge sap when it comes to my entertainment and there's only so much "bad things happening to good people" I can take. I can also relate to some of the criticisms I've seen: that Jyn's journey isn't very fleshed out and that the relationships between the different characters aren't sufficiently developed. It did work for me, but my pet tank didn't find those parts compelling at all, which led to an interesting discussion on the way home.


Rogue One poster from the film's Wikipedia page.

Getting into spoiler territory, let me describe to you my rough train of thought throughout watching the film:

- That's a lot of hopping between different people and planets. I have no idea what's going on, but I guess it will eventually start to make sense.

- OK, I'm starting to get the hang of who is who... except that I can't remember anyone's names. There's Jyn, and her father is called Galen, but as for anyone else? This sadly lasted throughout the entire film, and in the discussion afterwards I had to keep referring to people as "the guy who..." and similar designations. If anything, I would say the film's biggest flaw is giving everyone names that are hard to understand and remember.

- Watching a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin, I kept alternating between being amazed by how far the technology has come and being slightly wigged out by the whole thing. However, I'm not sure if the latter wasn't simply the result of me knowing that Peter Cushing is dead and that it therefore can't really be him. Either way the digital artists did an amazing job.

- I was less enamoured with Darth Vader's appearances. I thought they tried very hard to stay true to the way he was presented in the original trilogy, but what seemed scary in the seventies doesn't necessarily have the same impact forty years later. To me he came across as awkward rather than menacing.

- About halfway through the film, I suddenly thought to myself: Hang on, how close to Episode IV is this supposed to take place? Because this is starting to look very close. But none of these guys even get a mention in A New Hope... oh god, that means they are all going to die, aren't they?

- /cries

- OK, some people died, but they do have an escape plan, some of them might still make it...

- /cries some more

And that, dear readers, sums up my feelings about Rogue One. Happy Christmas! :P