11 NPCs That Died Before Their Time

Life in a Bioware game is dangerous if you are an NPC. While I've previously written about my annoyance with certain unkillable companions, regular NPCs are not nearly as well off. In fact I would say it's the opposite: many NPCs are seemingly introduced and made memorable in some way purely for the purpose of dying a gruesome death shortly after (sometimes even by your hand). I guess Bioware is doing something right with their characterisation if an NPC's death actually leaves me sad or annoyed - after all it shows that I care. However, that doesn't mean that I wouldn't have preferred to see more of that particular person before their untimely demise. So, without further ado: 11 NPCs that I feel died before their time. (Spoilers!)

11. Darth Silthar

In case you don't remember, Darth Silthar is the Sith who is working with the Imperial Reclamation Service on Tatooine and who talks to you at the start of the planetary story arc on Empire side. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call him a "nice" Sith, but he surprises you right off the bat by being respectful and appreciative of his Imperial associates, which is something Imperial players don't get to see often. However, he then dies on the very next mission he goes on and you're left to deal with the Reclamation Service for the rest of the story arc. I'm not sure he had tons of potential in him exactly, but I distinctly remember feeling a bit disappointed to see him die so soon the first time I played through this. Non-crazed Sith NPCs are rare enough as it is, and it would have been interesting to see more of him. Also, the rest of his team were a bunch of bores.

10. Broga, Jeelta & Portho

Another group of names that might not ring a bell right away, these are the Hutts that make up the "Three Families" that you deal with on Quesh. I'm forever confused by the supposed chronology of the events on Quesh, but the important point is that they are Hutts that aren't afraid to take sides in the Republic-Empire conflict, and that's refreshing. More could have been made of that before killing them off; that's all I'm saying.

However, I will admit that killing Hutts is a special kind of fun.

9. Grand Moff Kilran

Despite of "existing" only in flashpoints, Moff Kilran's appearances in the Esseles, Black Talon, Taral V and Maelstrom Prison were more than enough to make him a memorable character. And he did have a good run! However, I don't think we've seen an Imperial officer of his calibre ever since, and from my point of view it's been very noticeable that the position of "ruthlessly scary yet kind of fun to mock" Imperial figure has been glaringly empty for too long. Shouldn't have killed off the one who was doing a great job at it quite so quickly after all...

8. Supreme Commander Jace Malcolm

You may be surprised to see Theron's dad so low on this list. My reasoning for this is that he's never actually had much development in game, and most of what could have potentially made players feel attached to him one way or another happened in cinematics or novels. Nonetheless... he was a big player with a lot of background, and killing him off without actually doing much of anything with him in game felt wasteful. Of course he's not necessarily dead, as he's one of those characters that can stay alive or die depending on your choices. But let's be honest: Once someone is "optionally dead", they never have much of a role to play anymore and are as good as gone from the game anyway.

7. Tari Darkspanner

In case you need a reminder, this is the secret leader of the Revanites on Dromund Kaas. While the quest chain gives you the option to sell her out at the end, we never really find out what happens after that. However, it seems that she got away either way, as she eventually shows up again as the end boss of a daily chain on Yavin IV. Some people might consider it a refreshing throwback that Bioware thought of including her at all, but to me it just seems like a waste to have her be a simple daily quest mob. How did "the Master" react to meeting Revan in the flesh after all? So much more could have been made of that, and I can't help but feel that she deserved better.

6. Katha Niar

Katha Niar is an Imperial, formerly of the Ministry of Logistics, who helps Imperial players coordinate their missions during the planetary storyline on Makeb. I've always found the way she struggled with being in a difficult situation really likeable (even if the player is given the option to constantly be mean to her) and would have loved to see her become a recurring character. Unfortunately she dies at the end, no matter what you do. I suppose I can also give an honorary shout-out to her associate Lord Cytharat at this point (who dies an "optional" death), but personally I never found him quite as interesting. (Maybe if he also liked girls...)

5. Gayem Leksende

This servant of the Czerka Corporation is your main opponent as a Republic player during the planetary storyline on Tatooine (aside from the big bad you run into at the very end). I always loved how slimey and outright evil this guy is - trying to bomb old men in their retirement homes and stuff like that. Unfortunately his eventual end is unremarkable, and then Czerka is pretty much never heard from again until CZ-198. Again, seems like a missed opportunity to me, maybe not so much for Gayem in particular, but for Czerka in general.

4. (Former) Supreme Chancellor Saresh

I'm guessing that this one will surprise many people, because how could I not want this woman dead? Well, as it happens I always thought that Saresh was a pretty interesting character, filling the niche of that guy on your side with whose methods you constantly disagree, even if you are on the same side at the end of the day. I can't exactly claim that she didn't get enough screentime, what with all the ops missions she hands out to Republic players, but her final fate in KotET was just very undignified and felt entirely out of character to me. She should have been given a chance to go out actually fighting against the Empire in some way in my opinion.

3. Darth Marr

Oh, Darth Marr. Again, I can't really complain that he didn't get enough time in the limelight, what with his prominent roles in both the Rise of the Hutt Cartel and Shadow of Revan expansions, not to mention his appearances in both the Sith warrior's and inquisitor's class stories as well as the fact that he voices the Imperial intro to the Voidstar warzone. His death wasn't that bad either; at least he got to go out with a bang... and then got a reprise as a Force ghost on top of it all. Nonetheless I can't help but put him on this list because I just wanted to see so much more of him still! He was just one of the coolest Sith NPCs out there in my opinion, with his mysterious mask; deep, growly voice and overall aura of cool. I can't blame people for stopping halfway through KotFE chapter one just to keep him as a companion for a while...

2. Darth Malgus

One of the poster children for the game, literally featuring in trailers, on posters, and as a statue in the collector's edition, it was a bit of a shock to see this guy get killed off before the game had even received its first patch. The fact that you didn't originally see his body may have been a hint that a return was planned for a later date, but well... let's just say that at this point it seems increasingly unlikely, and the game does allow you to kill him off properly. It strikes me as a shame as you see quite a bit of him if you level through flashpoints as an Imperial character, but at the same time he's not given nearly enough time to show his personality as described in loving detail in the Deceived novel. His betrayal just comes out of nowhere and feels like both a waste as well as bad storytelling. Here it just feels like the story could have been fleshed out to be so much more than it was ever given a chance to be, even if it had still ended with his eventual death.

1. Empress Acina

Finally, my personal number one for this list is another "optional" death, Empress Acina. The reason I rank her much higher than Jace Malcolm even though they die to the same thing, depending on your choices, is that she was much more fleshed out in game (chapter two of KotET is pretty much entirely about bonding with her) and the choices that lead her to hold the idiot ball in order for her death to occur seem even more out of character for her than they were for Malcolm. Again, what a waste of a perfectly good character.

Go ahead and share anyone that I didn't include but that you feel also would have deserved a place on this list!


Faction Attitudes

I've been playing some of my Imperial max-level alts lately. As my fourth Republic character slowly makes her way towards Command Rank 300, I figured it was about time to give the other faction some love. (And not just because yesterday's patch introduced an achievement to get all eight classes to 300. Only mostly.)

However, I've also found that for some reason pugging on Imp side is a bit more likely to frustrate me. I keep running into attitudes that annoy me, and I wonder whether there is some truth to my perception or whether I'm just biased.

Actually, I think there can be no doubt about character distribution in terms of light and dark side at least. Go pug the Esseles five times and tell me how many times you got to sell out Ambassador Asara. Zero, right? Now pug the Black Talon five times and tell me how many times Captain Orzik survived. Maybe once - if you got lucky.

It's understandable though. While the game allows you to play a kind Sith or an evil Jedi, it's more natural for people to choose the Republic if they want to play a good guy and the Empire if they want to be evil.

However, people don't just roleplay differently. I've also found that Republic players are more likely to at least try to be team players. Now, I'm not claiming that all Republic players are one way and all Imperials another. I'm not even saying the majority on each side is one way or another. But at least to me it seems that attempts at team play are a bit more common on Republic side.

While doing warzones as an Imp, I repeatedly found myself abandoned guarding a node or door, my cries for help as I was trying to stay alive in the face of two or three attackers soundly ignored. Whenever I died and watched the enemy cap, I couldn't help but think: "Typical Imps". On Pub side I almost always get support. People may be slow or run around like headless chickens in other areas of the map, but usually someone will at least try to help.

Imps are also perfectionists. In a Lost Island hardmode run the other night I was healing on my Sorc, when the tank suddenly started berating me for my healing, even though we had a great run with no deaths whatsoever. Earlier he had also moaned about how slow everyone was when I hung back to help a party member who didn't know how to skip the trash at the beginning and pulled something by accident. (Note that the tank himself didn't lift a finger to actually help kill things or guide the person through!) I couldn't help but think about how a Rep pug would most likely just have high-fived each other for having had such an awesome run. Here it was nothing but moaning about how we didn't quite meet the tank's standards for perfection. Again, I see similar things in PvP. People get angry in chat on both sides when they are losing, but it seems to be mostly Imps who start shouting at people for playing sub-optimally even while their team is in the lead.

The one thing I will hand to the Imps is that they seem to have more of the really good players. When I see truly outstanding play in PvP, it's almost always from an Imp - as long as we're talking pure duelling skills, that is. When it comes to objectives, their disinterest in team play (see above) sometimes gets the better of them and they do things like run away from objectives just to get one more killing blow, resulting in a loss despite of their superior ability to kill the enemy. Again, I'm not saying that I've never seen a Pub player do this - it just seem to observe it on the other faction much more often.

Still, in the end I have no numbers to back up my observations either way, so it might just all be bias. Do your experiences with the two factions match my own perceptions? I would expect Imp players to disagree that they have more unpleasant individuals among their ranks, though I'm sure they'll be happy to accept the compliment of supposedly having the better players...


More Road Map Thoughts

As mentioned in my last post, the announcement of the impending server merges kind of overshadowed everything else that was said in the road map update this week, but there certainly was more. The team at Bioware did a pretty good job at banging the PR drum for once actually, as the post was almost immediately followed-up by a Q&A on Twitch, and this weekend more information about upcoming content has been pouring in via the New York Cantina event.

First I'd like to look at something else though: namely the previous road map released in May. How accurate was it in hindsight? Did everything that was promised in it actually come to pass? The answer is no, but nonetheless the final verdict is positive - nothing that was mentioned in the previous road map has been outright cancelled; a few features that were said to come in the future without any specific time frame just haven't arrived yet but are clearly still being worked on (such as Unassembled Components becoming a legacy currency, the new warzone map, or more returning companions).

The new road map reiterates those points and gives the impression that Keith continues to be devoted to delivering a strong and varied line-up of new content. The next story update will bring back a former Imperial agent companion and has been co-written by famous Star Wars author Timothy Zahn, which gives it quite a pedigree. In terms of multiplayer PvE, there'll be another flashpoint and the next encounter in the Gods from the Machine operation. PvPers will get a new Civil War-type map set on Yavin 4. (I have to confess I'm a little disappointed by that in so far as the previous references to "a new warzone" had made me expect a new rule set, not just a new map, but we will see how interesting it is. Quesh Huttball was sufficiently different from The Pit to make it a fun addition anyway.) And Galactic Starfighter will see its first proper rebalancing in years as well as a new map. (Again, not as good as a new game mode, but a big step up from nothing!)

At the same time, an impressive amount of effort seems about to be invested in quality of life changes and polishing existing parts of the game, such as continued CXP changes and the addition of a special vendor for companion customisations that were previously unavailable to one faction. What intrigued me the most personally was the mention of plans to update Dark vs. Light, conquest and the group finder. Maybe the longer dark/light states will improve my chances of convincing my guildies to hunt down some of those special bosses. (Understandably people didn't want to jump out to go looking for them for an hour in the middle of an ops.) My interest in conquest has been waning for a while, and the incoming server merges will likely make it impossible for my small guild to ever compete again under the current rule set. But if they make changes to the system afterwards, who knows? I don't know what to think of the idea of a group finder revamp, because I do think the current one works fine, but I'm open to possibilities.

All in all, the current direction continues to be encouraging for long-time fans of the game. Sure, I've seen the occasional grumble from dedicated KotFE/KotET players who want to see nothing but new solo story content, but overall public perception seems to have improved a lot compared to say, a year ago. Even in places like the SWTOR Facebook page, where I'm used to the top comments usually being whines about how much the game sucks now, people are positively excited and discussing the new developments with interest. Not bad for a nearly six-year-old MMO, not bad at all.


United Forces AKA Server Merges Inc.

Yesterday, passionate SWTOR players around the world were eagerly awaiting the release of Keith's latest road map, to find out what he has in store for the game for the next few months. It launched with quite a bang, with the very first bullet point being big enough to require its own lengthy post and (in my opinion at least) pretty much overshadowing everything else that came after: Server merges are coming - even if the post itself carefully avoids using the M word at all costs, as seems to have become the standard in the industry. All we hear about is connecting servers and uniting players.

Server merges have been a subject that the community has been talking about for a long time. As recently as June, I wrote about why I personally wasn't keen on the idea. However, I can't claim to be totally surprised that they are happening anyway. I had a feeling they were going to happen eventually, I just didn't expect the time to come quite so soon.

As you'd expect from someone who was against the idea, I'm not particularly happy about the news - but somewhat to my own surprise, I'm not really upset either. More than anything, I'm just kind of stunned. Even though I foresee few effects on my personal in-game experience (as I mentioned before, queue pops can't get any faster than instant), I felt a strong emotional connection to the name Red Eclipse, especially after all the trials and tribulations that accompanied my move onto the server back in 2012. I'm so used to talking about playing on TRE and tagging all my videos with "Red Eclipse" that it's going to be strange to be on Darth Malgus soon, even if it's not a bad name. (Everyone's thoughts are going out to the American west coast players who will soon be living on "The Hot Prospect". /snicker)

I'm also kind of quietly impressed by the sheer amount of effort that was clearly put into preparing for this. The post linked above contains a lengthy FAQ listing all kinds of things that won't be affected by the merges but that were constantly borked up by server transfers in the past. This certainly goes some way towards explaining why it felt like the team hasn't been working at full capacity in terms of putting out content for the past few months - they were obviously busy coding other things. Even things like duplicate strongholds are accounted for, something I never expected them to really give a damn about - and yes, you will get to keep them both.

However, it's not all sunshine and rainbows. Unsurprisingly, not all the downsides of enforced server merges could be addressed. If you simply liked being on a quieter server, you're just screwed, and I've already heard disgruntled grumblings from several roleplayers about Bioware abandoning them. (To be honest, I think Bioware already abandoned them when they removed the server tags and therefore made it impossible for new players to "organically" find the game's RP communities, without prior research.) I also had to chuckle a little at the prediction of conquests having more fierce competition than ever before being framed as a positive thing, as if it wasn't the deathblow to the aspirations of many smaller or medium-sized guilds of ever conquering a planet again.

And of course there is the naming issue, as character names will continue to remain unique and nothing was done to alleviate the incoming pains of people having to duke it out over the more popular ones. I was kind of surprised they decided to go ahead without addressing that, especially as they are implementing a workaround to deal with identical guild names. At least priority will be given to subscribers and characters that have been played a long time.

This one has also given me food for thought though. Newer readers might not know that my in-game character is actually called Shíntar with a funny i as I lost the "simple" version of the name during the first round of server transfers. I never worked up the courage to ask the other guy whether he would consider changing his name, but I did keep him on my friends list on one of my Imperial alts to keep an eye on him, and he never levelled up beyond level 60. Now, for all I know that could just mean that he changed mains and is now playing something else, but I can certainly hope that this means that he stopped playing and subscribing some time ago. And as I own the name Shintar on The Progenitor, which will be merged into TRE, I might be able to win out over him! I'm not really sure about the guy owning the name on Tomb of Freedon Nadd, but a quick inspection revealed another level 60 Sorcerer, so odds are that it's another abandoned account. Fingers crossed I guess...

I suppose it will be an interesting time for the game if nothing else. I've found that at least to some degree, server merges have a way of making lapsed players come back to check out the new situation, especially if they previously left because they weren't happy with their server's population but didn't want to pay for a transfer. Subscribers getting preference when it comes to keeping their names certainly also serves as an incentive to come back for at least that month, and the way the game is choosing to see it as an event to celebrate, including the dishing out of in-game goodies and achievements, will only be the cherry on top. Let's see how things go I guess.


Balance Schmalance

For the past couple of months, the SWTOR devs have been spending some time on class rebalancing. The latest round of changes announced for 5.5 included Commando healers, who will have pretty much every healing ability in their arsenal nerfed by X percent.

If you think this post is going to be some sort of thoughtful analysis of these changes, I'm sorry to disappoint. The truth is: I just don't care that much. That's actually why I always find class changes kind of annoying, regardless of whether they are nerfs or buffs. People constantly want to talk about them (usually in the form of lambasting Bioware for supposedly doing it all wrong) and everyone expects me to have an opinion on the matter. I usually don't mind that much when Bioware gives attention to an aspect of the game that doesn't interest me personally. However, usually it's also acknowledged that said updates just won't be relevant to everyone.

I'm continually perplexed by how many people seem to rate constant class changes as something that absolutely needs to be done. I get that they matter to hardcore PvPers, but surely there aren't that many of those? If you're just PvPing more casually... well, my main's class was pretty much universally rated as an easy kill for something like four years and I still had fun. And in PvE I don't recall a single instance since the game's launch where my guild had to ask someone to change class because whatever they were playing was underpowered and we wouldn't be able to bring them otherwise. And that's without even touching on the tens of thousands of people who just log on to do their quests... do you really think they will notice that ability X now does Y percent less damage?

I want to be understanding of why people care about class balance so much. I certainly get a glimpse of it when I look at GSF, which hasn't really been rebalanced since its launch. Strike fighters are just totally useless for example, there isn't anything that a scout can't do better, so nobody really plays the former. And that sucks! But even so, people are still queuing up and having fun. And balance between the actual player classes has never been so bad that a class couldn't participate at all.

I don't know how exactly the work at Bioware is distributed - I know that different people do different things - but I can't help but think there must be something more productive to do for the devs involved than to spend weeks poring over whether certain numbers should go up or down a bit.


Shadow of Revan is Overrated

Clickbait title? Thanks to Pfannenstiel for the post idea in any case.

There is a new SWTOR podcast in town which I have yet to add to my sidebar, called The Council, and last week a Twitter poll of theirs made the rounds asking people about their favourite SWTOR expansion. I added my own vote and looked at the results, unsurprised that I wasn't part of the relative majority, and moved on without giving it any more thought.

However, this morning I found that Pfanne had written a whole post about it, detailing why he agreed strongly with the most popular choice and still considers Shadow of Revan the best expansion to date. This in turn made me want to write a post about why I strongly disagree and actually consider Shadow of Revan the worst expansion to date. Hurrah for blogger cross-fertilisation!

Now, saying that I think Shadow of Revan was SWTOR's worst expansion so far probably sounds worse than it is, because while I love to criticise and pick apart absolutely everything, I personally don't think that the game has had any truly poor expansions. I just think that all the others were better, even if Rishi is a gorgeous planet and I enjoyed the little class story epilogues that SoR gave us.

Post-launch support matters

First off, a good expansion - to me - is about more than a checklist of its launch day features. What is being done to keep things interesting afterwards? Is there ongoing support in the form of large patches and new content releases?

My own pick for best expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, was an absolute star in this regard, but because it didn't tie everything together into a single coherent narrative, people like to forget that all those patches were actually still part of the RotHC content cycle. Someone in the Twitter conversation even wanted to call Oricon an expansion due to its sheer size, and that was just one of those 2.x patches. Others included CZ-198 and the three Forged Alliances flashpoints - another piece of content that people wrongly associate with another expansion (SoR), even though it was actually released months beforehand and only had the "Prelude to Shadow of Revan" label attached to it afterwards. I even joked back then that the patches were coming out faster than I could keep track of them, which is a problem I haven't had in a long time.

In comparison, Shadow of Revan's post-release scene was an absolute wasteland. I even went back to check the patch notes on the official website to make sure I wasn't forgetting anything, but it was actually the opposite: the patch notes only underlined how little there was going on during that time. For example the patch notes for 3.1, 3.2 and 3.3 all made "Bounty Contract Week Returns!" one of the "highlights" because they just had nothing else to talk about. There was Ziost, and that was pretty much it. Three numbered patches for ten months of expansion time, and only one of those actually added a significant amount of new content. And to think that people accused KotFE with its near-monthly cadence of chapter and Alliance alert releases of having no content.

Hurting group play for poor solo features

At launch I only marked it as an "odd choice" that Shadow of Revan forced you into solo instances over and over again, but I actually became quite peeved once I realised that this was now the new normal. In hindsight I can see why they did it - because they wanted you to be able to smooch Theron or Lana in peace, but I still think that this was a piss-poor excuse to ruin the fun of people who were trying to level with their friends. I didn't actually mind the forced solo nature of KotFE and KotET as much because at least those expansions gave me the feeling that my character was driving the story to some extent and making choices that made a difference. If you've ever felt that KotFE and KotET's choices "didn't really matter", go back to Shadow of Revan and Ziost and tell me what great decisions your character got to make in that content. I'll wait. Makeb didn't have very exciting choices either, but at least you could play through the whole thing seamlessly with a group. SoR just combined the worst of both worlds.

It also introduced solo modes to flashpoints with that stupid GSI droid. I don't much mind giving people the ability to solo the content, but the all-powerful droid was a poor band-aid that made for incredibly boring gameplay. Crisis on Umbara is a good example of how you can make a good solo mode in my opinion.

Lack of quality control

Every patch has its bugs, but for some reason SoR sticks out in my memory as buggier than most. Maybe it wasn't - I don't have a handy list to consult for this as I have with the patch notes - but did any other expansion launch with the final part of its main story hopelessly bugged out? I seem to remember that the solo Revan fight was totally impossible to complete solo for something like a week? And of course, once it had been fixed, it was still a terribly scripted and annoying encounter that we were supposed to repeat weekly. I also remember Rishi and Yavin IV being lag hell for weeks, to the point that people said they were quitting because the game was as good as unplayable anyway.

People also like to cite that SoR launched with no less than two operations and two flashpoints, but the problem is that they really weren't that great! Blood Hunt was OK I guess, making a splash by featuring Shae Vizla in game for the first time, but Battle of Rishi was very bland and loveless. The operations were also full of bugs (there was that Coratanni exploit, the main SoR quest line not advancing after ToS completion, the infamous Underlurker remaining totally unpredictable for months) and poorly tuned. I remember Temple of Sacrifice was the first ever operation where I walked out after our first clear and instead of thinking "Wow, that was fun!" I just felt tired and worn out. I had in fact planned to record a video of our first run-through, expecting it to be a laugh, but ended up deleting all the footage because people just ended up getting tired and grumpy. It left such a bad first impression on me that I'd probably rank Ravagers and ToS as my least favourite operations to this day.

Things I Like

I'd personally rank Rise of the Hutt Cartel as my favourite expansion because I liked the game as it was at launch, and without claiming that it was perfect, the 2.x content cycle expanded the base game in a lot of ways that stayed true to the aspects I liked, even if more class and companion stories weren't in the cards at the time.

Knights of the Fallen Empire had issues with the lack of new group content and made levelling a tad too easy for my liking, but I loved the introduction of level sync as a general concept and got hours of fun out of the re-tuned group content. I dare say that my guild actually did better for itself during that time than it did in SoR. KotFE also introduced my favourite warzone of all time - no, I'm not being sarcastic. And I did enjoy getting a new story update every month, not going to lie, which means that KotFE firmly wins out over SoR in the raw fun department for me.

As for KotET - well, I'd say the jury is still out on that one! I think it was off to a strong start with the chapters, uprisings and the promise of a new operation, but Iokath was a bit of a mixed bag and it feels like updates have slowed down quite a bit over the past few months. Still, as I said above, I try to judge an expansion in its entirety, and KotET still has plenty of time left to throw out some more interesting patches.


Questing Surprises

After I finished my knight's class story, I was wondering what levelling goal to tackle next. Eventually I decided to go back to working on my Commando on the Ebon Hawk. She's been max level for a while now, but more than merely levelling her up, I had made it my mission a while ago to replay all the quests on Republic side on her, since it's so easy to skip them these days and it's been quite a while since I actually saw all of them. When I last left her, she had just finished the Balmorran bonus series.

Aside from the vastly accelerated XP gains, the levelling game also underwent a lot of more subtle changes in 4.0. I did write a first impressions piece about that shortly after 4.0's launch, but my focus back then was on a couple of Imperial alts. On Republic side, I continue to be surprised by changes that I haven't seen yet, such as when I mentioned a broken cut scene in a mission on Coruscant in this post.

One thing I already noticed back in February but about which I didn't write a full blog post at the time was the removal of what I considered an important story choice in the planetary storyline on Balmorra. At one point, after taking control of the planetary satellites, you have to choose between using them to help the Republic military (which was your original goal) or to save a bunch of slicers from being executed - with the latter option having the additional complication that said slicers are best buds with the guy who helped you gain control of the satellites in the first place. Except... when I played through this on my Commando, no dialogue wheel came up, and she just made the light side choice by default. Wait, what? I mean, I was playing light side anyway so I guess it wasn't a big deal, but it was still kind of jarring and I can only imagine how awkward it must feel if you were gunning for the other option.

As not many knowledgeable old-timers replay this content at any given point, the issue hasn't received much publicity, though I found at least one angry forum thread about it. Myself, I simply submitted a bug report about it, because I couldn't fathom why a choice like that would have been removed intentionally. Shortening bonus missions is one thing, but this? Just makes no sense.

As I finally continued to Quesh the other night, I was in for a positive surprise however. For as long as I can remember, there has been this mission on Quesh which is part of the main planetary chain and has you raiding a factory. During the mission dialogue, Broga the Hutt tells you about how he'd really like you to pick up some adrenals while you're over there (wink wink, nudge nudge), which seemed like pretty common "bonus mission talk". The problem was that there never was a bonus mission. Nothing appeared on the quest tracker, and I never found anything to click on inside the factory either. It was a mystery.

Now, as far as I can reconstruct things in hindsight, the bonus mission appears to have always been in the game files, but I guess some bug was preventing it from triggering properly. On the official forums, I found complaints from as recently as 2015 decrying the fact that the quest wasn't working. Well, imagine my surprise when I picked up the main mission this time around, and suddenly the bonus "Broga's Adrenals" appeared on my quest tracker. And lo and behold... when I arrived in the factory, there were crates on the floor that I could click on to pick up the long-lost adrenals! The best part was that on handing in, I was also given the choice whether I wanted to actually hand the adrenals over to Broga or claim them for the Republic. I was a bit surprised that the latter was considered the light side option - even if he's a Hutt, it doesn't seem very kind to agree to fetch something for him and then go: "Nyah nyah, I'm keeping that for my own people."

Still, it was amazing to me that they finally got around to fixing that bonus mission after who knows how many years and that as a result, I got to see something new in old content. I wonder if more such surprises await on the remaining planets that I haven't fully replayed since 4.0? If yes, will they be positive or negative?


Gods from the Machine So Far

It's hard to believe that it's already been five months since the Gods from the Machine operation opened its doors. My guild actually downed Tyth (the first boss) on veteran mode only three weeks ago. As I wrote in my first impressions of the encounter, many of my guildies weren't particularly enamoured with him, which actually led to us turning our backs on the new operation in short order and going back to working on older boss fights that we still haven't beaten to this day. It was only a little over a month ago that someone said: "You know, we should really give Tyth another try." And after a couple of nights of working on the fight, the God of Rage finally lay defeated at our feet (not counting story mode, which we had of course beaten right on release).

I think one of the major factors that helped our progression was that we eventually deviated somewhat from the strategy laid out by Dulfy's guide. Specifically, the tank swap kept causing us trouble because it wreaked havoc on the add control, so eventually we changed it so that whenever the main tank needed to drop his debuff stacks, he briefly swapped aggro with a dedicated dps instead (the fight's mechanics allow for anyone to get aggro instantly, without the need for a taunt) - this way the off-tank could focus on add control without distractions, so the adds got rounded up much more quickly and calls to AoE them could be made more accurately.

Last night we finally got to try the second encounter, Esne and Aivela, on veteran mode. (I thought the second sister was called Aviela for the longest time... I think that would have made for a much better name.) On story mode, they were mostly a crazy light show without much else happening - the only mechanic you really have to watch out for are the coloured laser beams. But from what I've seen of veteran mode so far, it's pretty much the exact opposite of Tyth. The latter is extremely straightforward from a mechanical perspective, with only very few abilities - the challenge consists of dealing with the adds and the fact that it's largely random what kind of set you get during each wave, forcing you to adapt your tactics on the fly. Esne and Aivela on the other hand enforce an extremely complicated dance, with every person in the ops group having to fulfil different tasks to deal with various adds and abilities, but there are only a couple of points in the fight where you don't know exactly what's going to happen from one moment to the next. While we didn't get them down on the first night, I suspect that this kind of challenge is going to be a little easier for my ops group to tackle than Tyth's. We're just bad at making decisions on the fly.

Either way, I'm quite happy with both of the new boss encounters that we've got so far. I'm kind of hesitant to rate them compared to the older operations, because I suspect that the piecemeal approach to the operation's release has been colouring my judgement. ("Finally a new boss! Gimme!") We'll see how I feel once we have access to the whole thing.

This brings me to my current worry though: When are we going to have access to the full operation? The original plan was to have it finished by the end of the year, but we're now approaching the end of September and only two out of the rumoured five fights are actually live. Seeing the final boss before the end of the year seems increasingly unlikely.

And I'm not mad about "broken promises" or anything, but I'm a little worried. I don't think that Bioware is just bad at planning. I'm worried that Gods from the Machine is underperforming compared to their expectations, which is forcing them to prioritise other things again and slowing down development of the new encounters. I mean, we all know that raiding is a minority pursuit, but so are many things in game, and there's still a difference between developing something for a minority and doing so for a tiny minority.

When I do a search on Youtube for "swtor tyth veteran mode", I currently get 1,720 results, but you don't have to scroll down very far to see the first videos that don't actually match the search term, such as some guild's Eternity Vault run. (Just why, Youtube?) How many raiders are actually left in the game?

Some time ago I had a bit of a discussion with someone, I think it was actually in my own comment section, who posited that making mistakes wasn't such a bad thing for Bioware, because then they get all this good publicity for fixing them, which they wouldn't have gotten if they'd just got it right the first time. I strongly disagreed with this, because from my experience it's rather the opposite: First impressions matter a lot and are likely to get all the big headlines, while fixing things later doesn't get nearly as much attention, and people are less likely to return after having been burnt than if you hadn't scared them off in the first place.

This is what I suspect and fear is happening with Gods from the Machine. Keith really wanted to return that multiplayer feeling to SWTOR, but too many of the people who enjoy this kind of content left over the past two years while Bioware was releasing almost nothing but story updates, and after all this time they have little interest in coming back.

Another thing that speaks in favour of this theory is Tyth's missing master mode. Again, the original plan was for Gods from the Machine to include the return of master modes, with each master mode coming out for the previous boss whenever the next encounter is released. So Tyth's master mode should have come out when Esne and Aivela were released back in July. However, it didn't, and there has been no comment on why or even on whether we might still get to see it later. It probably didn't seem worth the effort, and the fact that there hasn't been much of an outcry from the community about this particular "broken promise" only seems to back that up. Honestly, even as someone who still runs ops every week, I can't claim to be upset by this particular decision. The veteran modes for Tyth and the sisters seem more in line with Ravagers and Temple of Sacrifice so far, meaning they are hard enough as it is and don't feel like you could realistically add another difficulty above them that would be played by more than a handful of guilds. However, it's still a little discouraging to see Bioware backpedal on their plans for the new operation quite so quickly.

In conclusion I turn to you, my readers who also run ops: What do you think? If you weren't interested in ops before, I don't see why Gods from the Machine would have suddenly changed that. But if you were a "lapsed" raider for example, has the new operation helped at all to get you interested again? If you have been raiding it, how much time have you spent on fighting the new bosses? I suppose that in terms of pure metrics, even my own guild wouldn't have appeared to be very interested, as we still spend so much time in the old operations.


Pugging with Shintar: Venturing Into Master Modes

I've managed to continue to upload an episode of my pugging video series pretty much every week, despite of being worried at some point that I might not be able to keep it up. I'm kind of amazed by my own ability to maintain a routine sometimes. Too bad it's not really a very highly-valued skill (though handier in everyday life than you might think).

Somehow I've also ended up with one hundred subscribers on YouTube! Thanks, everyone! I hope the fame doesn't go to my head. Anyway, here are the new episodes I uploaded over the last six weeks:

Episode 13: Falling Off Lifts in Cademimu - Long-time readers may know that Cademimu is an old favourite of mine, and I was pleased to get it as my random that day. Following the age-old tradition, someone fell to their death off a lift, including me. You'd think I'd really know better by now.

Episode 14: Confusion, Chaos & Naked Anti-Bob - This episode started with me ending up in Cademimu again because apparently I had failed to unselect it from the group finder menu - still, what were the odds of getting the exact same thing again? Like back in Episode 7, I powered through quickly and then queued again. This time I ended up in Mandalorian Raiders, in a run that included a Commando who wore virtually no gear and needed on everything. Strange times!

Episode 15: Splitting the Party in Legacy of the Rakata & Pugette's First MM! - In a relatively unremarkable Legacy of the Rakata run Pugette reached the milestone of hitting level 50, which allowed her to queue for master mode flashpoints for the first time. I put myself in the queue right away, expecting nothing to happen, but got a pop almost instantly and therefore decided to turn the episode into another double feature. I got into master mode Athiss as my first of its kind, which was fortunately a relative softball, especially as my group consisted of pretty good players.

Episode 16: Trash Skipping Gone Wrong in MM Cademimu - With master modes unlocked in the group finder, I decided to queue for both veteran and master modes simultaneously, fully expecting the veteran mode to pop first... just to get into another master mode run instantly. Back to Cademimu I went once again, though this time in its harder iteration. No deaths from fall damage in this one, though I made a complete fool out of myself on the first boss. The ending was also a good demonstration of how badly (or not at all) communicated trash skipping attempts can go horribly wrong and just end up delaying everything.

Episode 17: Bad Chemistry in MM Assault on Tython - The instant master mode pops continued. This one was off to what I felt was a super awkward start, with the tank asking to be kicked, me causing a wipe by obliviously running into a group of mobs the others had skipped, and a strangely passive-aggressive exchange ensuing between the dps when we got a replacement tank. The run continued fine after that, but my good mood was shot, because that's what this sort of behaviour does to me unfortunately. I also found the last boss quite tough to heal!

Episode 18: Interesting Times in MM Maelstrom Prison - This late-night visit to hardmode Maelstrom Prison ended up being one of my favourite kinds of pugs: We actually did both the bonus missions for maximum XP, people were chill, and while some mistakes were made, they were amusing and/or simply shrugged off, so a good time was had by all (I hope).



When I talk to other players about character appearances, it often seems to me that I care a lot less about what my characters look like than the average player... yet at the same time, also a lot more.

I care less in the sense that I don't really give a fig about whatever's supposed to be the newest, coolest set of gear from the Cartel Market. Most of my characters only own a single outfit, which they've often worn since they were lowbies. And what's that about some detail about the newest hairstyle that you don't like? Eh.

However, I seem to care more than average in the sense that I consider my characters' looks an essential part of their personality and rarely - if ever - change them. I think I can still recall every single time I've ever taken a character to the barber shop to change their appearance after creation (in any MMO) - it hasn't been often.

I also tend to have silly rules for myself, such as that no two characters on the same server are allowed to sport the same hairstyle. Everyone must be unique! I would probably be in trouble if there weren't so many species that have no hair (Twi'lek, Togruta, Rattataki) or whose ladies at least look pretty good with a bald head (Zabrak, Cathar).

Looking at the colours though,  I seem to have a thing for shades of black and red, hmm...

Bioware's lack of skill when it comes to designing appealing hairdos certainly turns this self-imposed limitation into a challenge sometimes. You see this in some of their other games too: lots of hairstyles that give off the impression that the artist doesn't actually know how women like to wear their hair, and which look more as if someone just gave them a list of checkboxes in an attempt to come up with some variety: ponytail, short bob, bun, um... short style with a random braid somewhere?

At launch in particular, I remember people complaining a lot about the lack of long hair options. I could kind of understand why that was a thing though, as long hair would have invited clipping and physics problems. Just look at how much work they put into Twi'lek lekku initially: Even if the result doesn't move like something that's supposed to contain a creature's brain (they tend to behave more like balloon animals really...), it does move...

At some point however, someone up top seemed to say: To hell with worrying about clipping and physics, if people want to buy long hair, let them! So we got "the Barbie", which is sort of the opposite of what they did with lekku... no physics, it clips like crazy and moves about as gracefully in the wind as a hard hat, but who cares? People bought it anyway, and based on how many female characters I see sporting it on the fleet and in screenshots, it's certainly popular.

A Shintar that must never be.

Now their latest coup has been to add some hairstyles that had previously been reserved exclusively for some important NPCs: "the Shae", "the Lana", "the Senya". I kind of wish they didn't continue to go down that road. It's not strictly against my imaginary rules, but it certainly doesn't help with feeling unique when I'm bound to eventually run into an important character that will sport the exact same hairdo as me. Plus I think the Senya bun is just an uglier variation of other buns already in game.

... but of course I still bought them! You never know. I can't keep creating Twi'leks forever and at some point I'm going to run out of available hair options that I find tolerable... unless they add more of course. Which is why new hair bundles will continue to be one of those things that I'll always pick up on day one.


A Knight's Tale

Another milestone achieved: I've finally completed the Jedi knight story for a second time. Only took me five years...

I get excited about these things because while I do love SWTOR's class stories, they are not my first go-to when I'm looking for an evening of easy fun and they require a bit of conscious effort to work on. In addition, I get quite annoyed with myself when I have a character stuck somewhere in the middle of their story, because it makes me feel like I "can't"/shouldn't create another alt of the same class until I've finished the previous one's story. You can guess how peeved I was with myself by this point for taking three years to level up this second knight...

With how long it had been, I do have to admit that there were quite a few details to the story that I'd forgotten about, and it was nice to be reminded of them. I also took so many screenshots. When I levelled my first knight, I hadn't yet succumbed to using third party software to take screenshots to circumvent SWTOR's issues with the Print Screen button, so I had virtually no pictures from my first playthrough. As anyone who's played a Jedi knight knows, there are plenty of pretty epic and screenshot-worthy moments in that story.

All in all though, I still agree with my initial thoughts about the Jedi knight story. Sometimes it feels epic, other times it's so clichéd it hurts. So it remains one of the poorer class stories to me, even though I know many rate it highly or even as the best. One thing I have to say however, after replaying it after all this time and after having seen all the other class stories: It does a better job at dealing with side characters than most. There's a whole bunch of people whom you can kill or get killed relatively early on, who actually make a comeback on Corellia if they are still alive. They don't do anything that affects the outcome of the story, but it's still cool to see them again and hear what effect your actions have had on them. The cast of Jedi that you work with throughout the story is also pretty varied and interesting.

The biggest highlight of the playthrough was actually seeing Lord Scourge again. How could I forget all about him? I once listed him as the one Jedi knight companion that I wouldn't want to lose, but then I took my Guardian into KotFE shortly after it came out and well... obviously I haven't heard from him since, and since I had no other knight at a high enough level to own him as a companion, he just kind of vanished from sight for me. (I had no screenshots of him either.) "Getting him back" on this character made me really happy!

As a bonus, his voice was just as I remembered - shortly after 4.0, I remember grousing about how his new voice lines for when he is set to dps or heal (as opposed to his old default role, tanking) sounded all wrong and as if Bioware had hired a new voice actor for him who sounded nothing like the old one at all. Looking back at it now, the only references I could find about this talk about it being a bug, and that the sound files for several companions had gotten mixed up at the time? Either way, this time around he sounded completely like his old self again, even while healing me, which pleased me to no end.

He also got along a bit better with this Sentinel than with my old Guardian, since I at least attempted to make some dark side decisions on this one. I've said before that I can't really play dark side characters since I dislike being evil just that much, but at least towards the end I got a few dark side decisions in by being all: "My mission is too important for me to hang around and waste time with your petty problems right now!" (Ooh, so edgy!) I even refused to do the side mission near the end where you're supposed to rescue your companion from peril, which was made even easier by the fact that it was Rusk of all people who had gotten in trouble - I thought it was always Doc or Kira! Not that it makes a difference either way, as the situation is resolved quickly afterwards with a comment that one of your other companions filled in to do the rescuing.

One funny side effect of the new dark vs. light system is that you can effectively "cheat" your way towards being a certain alignment regardless of your story choices. (You could do that before if you had diplomacy as one of your crew skills, but it was quite an amount of work in comparison.) So even though I failed at being truly evil, with my supported alignment set to dark the entire time, Satele Shan told me at the end that she could sense the dark side in me. I kind of chuckled when my character responded with: "What have I done?" - because she really hadn't done much that would have been considered dark side.

Not sure what's up next for me in terms of story - I do have a Sage that has been sitting at the start of chapter two for nearly five years as well, but I'm not as fussed about her. But maybe I should go for it, since I seem to be on a bit of a roll?


Happy Grinding!

I've thought for a while that Neverwinter is a perfect secondary MMO to play alongside SWTOR because its strengths lie in exactly the opposite places compared to SWTOR's. Not only does it provide me with a fantasy fix whenever I want one, it's also a great game to grind in. While grinding in MMOs has received a bad reputation over the past few years, I think that it absolutely has its place as a type of content - it just shouldn't be the only thing to do. Sometimes however, my mood is just right for a bit of mindless mob killing or performing other simple in-game tasks without much context that still give me the feeling that I'm progressing my character.

SWTOR has generally been bad at providing this because most content requires attention, whether because there is some sort of story going on or because it's of a difficulty level that requires your full focus (e.g. raiding or PvP). Command XP didn't feel like a good addition at first because it made the mistake of wanting to be the only road to gear in town and on top of that it was painfully slow to get anywhere with it initially. With all the changes and buffs it's received since then, it's in a much better place though, and when Bioware announced that we were going to get a week of double Command XP this week (when I had already taken time off work no less), my ears certainly perked up.

Why would I even grind CXP though? My main's already at rank 300 and in full 248 gear. Well, as I said above, sometimes I actually enjoy a bit of grinding - and with Command ranks advancing at twice the usual rate, I figured that it might actually feel rewarding to work on some alts. Not just for the gear - I read somewhere that dataminers have discovered that achievements for getting all eight classes to Command rank 300 might be coming up at some point. As silly as that sounds, for some reason this is the kind of achievement that really tickles my fancy, and I figured I might as well get a head-start this week.

My third character to hit Command rank 300

On Tuesday I was doing a round of Iokath dailies on my Guardian (before the event had even started) and quickly found myself feeling somewhat confused when after completing only two missions or so, I had already gained two Command levels. It was at this point that I noticed some guildies talking about how most dailies were bugged and giving way more XP than usual - fifteen times more than usual in fact! One of them joked about me being an exploiter now, which didn't really worry me as big part of actual exploiting is doing something that isn't part of normal gameplay... but it certainly felt odd, especially when the double rewards event started soon afterwards and those crazy numbers became even higher. Fortunately CS soon confirmed that nobody had to worry about "exploiting" this bug, and Musco's and Keith's official responses on the forums were examples of unusually good PR management for SWTOR: Basically they confirmed that it was a bug, but they could see why people enjoyed it and didn't consider it game-breaking, so they told people that they should enjoy it while it lasts. Keith even took feedback and noted that dailies were probably due for a CXP boost, even if it shouldn't be quite this much.

So I actually did three daily areas on Tuesday, which is a lot for me as someone who's not a lover of dailies. I had no particular urge to just grind on one character like crazy, but instead saw it as an opportunity to give some love to alts that I usually don't play that much anymore. I was reminded that the alignment-resetting bug in Section X still exists when my Guardian was suddenly demoted from Light V to neutral - good thing she wasn't wearing anything with an alignment requirement. In-between I also queued for a couple of GSF matches, since that was the bonus activity for the day, and got what I think is my highest ever kill count in a match!

(This was on an alt with completely un-upgraded ships by the way, and I still think of myself as a very mediocre if not below average GSF player - but I always do a lot better myself if the rest of my team is strong than if I'm surrounded by people just as bad or even worse than me.)

On Wednesday the featured activity of the day were flashpoints, so I figured I would do some more dailies while waiting for pops, but my Imperial healer alts always got hardmode groups so quickly that they never had time to go anywhere. I actually ran six master mode flashpoints in a row that afternoon - I wouldn't have rated flashpoints as a grindy activity previously since they do require a certain minimum amount of attention, but in actuality it was less than I thought, especially in places like the Black Talon. None of my pugs were awful either, though I was a little sad inside when people insisted on running past the bonus boss in BT even though we were on the right step of the chain and he was right there. Some people just seem to be allergic to doing bonuses in the same way that I'm allergic to skipping them. I was somewhat compensated by tanks who later pushed for the bonus in both Boarding Party and Cademimu, which is somewhat rare from my experience.

In the evening I also queued up on my Marauder, who did get to do some more dailies while waiting in the dps queue. The Czerka Core Meltdown I got into had one of the most heart-breaking pug moments I've ever seen, as after two wipes on the Vrblther (WTB some vowels please; I can't believe I spelled that right) the tank told our Sorc healer that he should probably leave and work on his gear some more and/or get more healing practice before trying hardmodes again. "If that's what you want," the healer said and exited the area - he looked so dejected! It was true though that his gear was pretty poor (not sure if bolster still helps if you're level 70) and he did silly things like spam Force Storm on the adds while people were dying all around him, but I still felt bad for him... I was also surprised because he had managed to successfully heal us through the Duneclaw, and I always considered that one much harder to heal. After he had quit, the tank whipped out his Vette to heal and on the next attempt nobody's health even did as much as dip. Companions, man.

Of course today any plans to continue grinding were foiled by a broken patch that was so bad that Bioware had to take the servers offline again immediately after its drop and haven't been able to bring them back up again at the time of writing this. The current ETA doesn't have them coming back before the end of the evening for us Europeans either, but they've said that they'll consider extending the event to make up for the lost time. Who'd have thought that a day would come where I'd be eager to spend some more time grinding dailies in this game...


Crisis on Umbara - The Story

While my last post took a non-spoilery look at the nature of the new flashpoint, this one is going to be about the story, which means spoiler time! If you haven't played through Umbara yet and don't want to know what happens in advance, you'll want to skip this one. You have been warned.

So... that was quite a twist, huh? Except... I felt nothing, which was a bit of a surprise in itself. I suppose the problem is that I had been kind of spoiled about the identity of the traitor, which greatly diminished the impact of the big revelation of course. I kicked up a bit of a conversation about this on Twitter:
I don't think I follow anyone on there who would deliberately spoil things for others, but several people had made some "totally not spoilers" reaction comments once the identity of the traitor had been datamined, which pretty much gave it away anyway in context. The fact that everyone was "so shocked" meant that it had to be someone unexpected, someone so close to the Outlander that we would have expected them to be above suspicion. The fact that many people were not just surprised but actually upset meant that it had to be a love interest, someone whose betrayal hurt their feelings, which pretty much narrowed it down to Lana or Theron. Finally, it was mostly ladies who seemed to be upset by the new developments... so Theron then, eh? All I could think of when he suddenly pulled his blaster on us on Umbara was: "As I thought, then." I guess there is some advantage to me rarely bothering with the romances in this game; at least it saves me from being upset by stuff like this.

Of course, the problem remains that as a light-side player, the whole development simply doesn't make sense. Some of the things Theron says, such as that he doesn't like what the Alliance has become, are understandable, but his actions are not. Going to such extreme measures in this context just feels totally out of character. But even if you don't agree with this assessment and find his actions believable, it's still galling to be told that you're being betrayed because of the Alliance, considering that you haven't really had a chance to make a difference. Lana and Theron are the whole reason the Alliance even exists; it's an organisation of their making. Scrapping the Eternal Fleet and the Eternal Throne wasn't an option at the end of KotET, though I'm sure many players would have taken it quite happily. So we're being betrayed for story developments that we didn't have a chance to avoid. Bleh.

For a dark side character, the basic betrayal at least has some logic to it. You are quite a tyrant, and Theron not liking that is believable. I've often wondered why Theron and Lana stick with you if you consistently make decisions that they disapprove of. It's just a shame that it only works for about half the player base. That said, this version still manages to include some ridiculousness: As a Force user for example you get the option to Force-choke Theron the moment he betrays you... but then you let him down again for a moment to hear his explanation... and then never do anything again while he walks away. I'm usually not easily annoyed by characters doing something stupid/sub-optimal because people don't always make perfect decisions. However, your character forgetting about their Force powers mere seconds after they last used them was just too weird.

Other than that, there are some more supremely bizarre bits of dialogue in places. My favourite was the former Cipher Nine complaining about how spies like Theron are always scum. Um, what? Remember who's talking here! The message you broadcast to the galaxy at the end had me squirming as well, in both of its iterations. My trooper, who was still seeking reconciliation, was offering Theron a bunch of Eternal Fleet ships to command. I wouldn't expect that kind of thing to interest him, and my character would never even think of making such an offer! Who wrote this stuff? On the dark side, I didn't like my Sith warrior - who has a history of taking her vendettas highly personally - simply offering a bounty on his head. No, I wouldn't want some bounty hunter to kill him, I want to get my revenge myself! Just argh.

Now, the game has always had the occasional moments where your character said things that you didn't really expect/like, mostly because the short paraphrase in the dialogue selection menu didn't really hit the mark and the actual dialogue line came across quite differently. But this is getting out of hand - they are putting way too many words in our characters' mouths and it's getting highly uncomfortable. They need to bring back some more granular dialogue choices - even if they don't have any effect on the outcome! I'd just feel a lot better being given the choice of not saying anything sometimes instead of the weird things that the writers put into the Outlander's mouth in places.

Either way, the big question is where the story is going to go from here. My own first thought was: Hopefully we won't be chasing Theron for the next couple of patches. Yes, his betrayal was very personal, but I'd rather not waste resources on just chasing one guy. He was at his most dangerous while he was sabotaging things from the inside, but now he's just another enemy of the Alliance who's "somewhere out there".

Of course, this is where I saw people suggest that it might all be one giant ruse anyway. Theron has played dangerous games before - wouldn't it make total sense for him to try and infiltrate this mysterious order by faking a betrayal? Of course he wouldn't be able to tell you or it wouldn't be convincing. Double agent Theron Shan! I actually think that would be pretty cool and I was kind of amused by some of the reactions I saw to the suggestion...

Other MMOs: Here are some evil guys. You need to kill them! Don't ask why they are evil though, they just are. Or maybe this one guy was good at first, but then he was corrupted by some evil entity. Yeah.

Bioware: So one of your most trusted advisors finds out about this dangerous secret society that is a threat to you and the galaxy and decides to infiltrate them by faking that he's betraying you, but you don't know that so you really think that your love interest broke your heart! Quite a twist, huh?

Fans: Sigh, what is it with Bioware always going for the most boring and overused clichés...

Only in the Bioware community...

Personally I would be cool with that theory turning out to be true, though at the same time it would be a bit of a shame if I had another "twist" ruined for me simply by being able to guess what it was going to be in this case. Still, at least this direction would make more sense for a light-sided Outlander than Theron actually betraying you for flimsy reasons. For a dark-sided Outlander though, I would love it if the betrayal was real, because it's deserved for them. Maybe Theron wasn't planning to really turn on you but then decided to change sides for real after seeing your reaction. That would certainly return some semblance of choices mattering to this plot.


Crisis on Umbara - Mechanics

Yesterday was a big day: After two days of delays we finally got the patch that 1) continued the storyline from Iokath and 2) blessed us with the first new "proper" flashpoint (not counting the Star Fortresses) in more than two and a half years. As someone who is both into the story and a bit of a flashpoint fan (in case you hadn't noticed from all the posts I've written about them in the past), this was an exciting event indeed.

I'll leave the discussion of the story developments for another post though and start with talking about the flashpoint from a mostly mechanical point of view, without actually touching on the story. So you can read on without worrying about spoilers!

First off, Crisis on Umbara comes with four different settings, because having three of them with sometimes misleading names wasn't confusing enough yet. The new addition is a non-repeatable solo mode which actually advances the storyline, while all the other versions don't.

I have to admit that I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it's a pretty ingenious way of both avoiding "space bar anxiety" during long cut scenes in pug groups and of saving innocent newbies from accidentally spoiling themselves. Only the non-repeatable solo version has the full story - in all the repeatable modes, the cut scenes are heavily trimmed down to the point of not featuring any dialogue, and instead of encountering the actual traitor, you run into a mysterious masked figure that runs away. This means that if you happen to run the flashpoint before actually reaching the point in the story where it is set, it doesn't reveal anything about the plot - and once you do the actual story instance, you'll be in for one hell of a surprise.

Also, I was kind of pleased to see that the non-repeatable solo mode at least - not sure about the repeatable version - opted to simply make the mobs relatively easy to kill instead of saddling you with that blasted Jesus droid and having you face off against hitpoint sponges. One of my biggest criticisms of past solo modes has been that letting the droid (slowly) do all the work for you simply isn't very fun.

What are the downsides? Well, for me personally the fact that the actual story-advancing version of the flashpoint is another solo instance is a bit of a bummer. I understand the necessity since it looks like your choices might affect future events once again, but the original announcement of the story continuing in a flashpoint had given me hope that I might actually be able to play through it with my pet tank. No such luck, at least not on the first run. My wait for the return of actual story content that can be done in a group continues.

Finally there's simply the fact that having yet another "version" of the flashpoint is just confusing, good intentions or not. Just the other day I ran into a guy on reddit who was confused and frustrated by being unable to solo Hammer Station, as he thought it was basically just another bit of story. And in fairness, it's not like terms like "veteran mode" really tell the uninitiated that this requires a group... I'm starting to fear that all MMOs are inevitably doomed to become more and more confusing with age, but that doesn't mean that we actively have to try to add to this confusion. The bottom line is that I'm undecided on whether this "four modes" setup is a good thing or not.

On to the flashpoint itself: As I said I won't talk about the story, but I will use some vague terms to talk about things like bosses and environments. The reactions to Umbara's looks that I've seen so far have been a bit subdued, with people citing the differences in the way the planet looks compared to in the Clone Wars series as the main reason for their discontent. Without this frame of reference, I simply found it gorgeous. I love how strange and alien it looks with its dark skies and alien glowy tentacles growing out of the ground. It's unlike anything else we've seen in SWTOR so far, and the closest zone it reminds me of is actually World of Warcraft's Zangarmarsh, though that's a lot wetter. The flashpoint also features several new mob skins (not completely new models, but I guess that would be asking a bit much), which had me quite excited.

I was also pleased that it really felt like a "proper" flashpoint, even if it's relatively short. Maybe I'll make that the subject of another post some time: What actually defines a good flashpoint? I just know that this one had all the ingredients: story progression, traversing of different environments, as well as all kinds of little bits and pieces that you can take or leave but which make the whole thing more engaging. For example in the first part there are some traps on the floor that spawn additional turrets, and there is an item you can pick up to disable said traps. I completely missed this on my first playthrough and simply tried to walk around them. However, there is also an achievement for actually triggering X amount of traps and simply killing the turrets. Your choice.

A bit further in, there are some neutral mobs which won't attack you out of their own volition, but again, there is an achievement to go out of your way and kill them anyway. I even found some flowers growing on the ground, a first for any flashpoint - if there are actual archaeology nodes too (I haven't had a chance to check yet), I'll take that as evidence that someone at Bioware totally does read my blog. There is also a bonus boss that is cunningly hidden in a corner, with no mission pointing the way towards it - in fact, I managed to completely miss it during my first solo playthrough.

Now, what sorts of obstacles does Umbara force you to overcome? Well, first there's that train that has been the big advertising point from the start. This part of the flashpoint made me think that the designers must have been inspired by "The Last Train to Cairo" from Secret World, which I got to play recently and which is a very fun mission that - surprise, surprise - has you boarding a train and fighting your way to the front both by running along on top of train cars and by smashing through them and fighting baddies. Admittedly the Umbara Express feels like a pale imitation in comparison, but the train also isn't quite as vital to the flashpoint as we were initially led to believe, and a good chunk of it actually has you back on the ground.

The actual boss encounters were all reasonably interesting and challenging. Well, on veteran mode we smashed through them without any real difficulty, but that's to be expected with an overgeared guild group. I'll have to run it in a low-level pug soon just to see what that's like! On master mode things hit pretty hard though, which definitely goes some way towards explaining why they wanted the minimum gear requirement for group finder groups. The second boss (third if you count the bonus boss) in particular hit like a truck, especially once he hit his enrage at about 15%. We were mostly fine before that, but at that point he always quickly wrecked the group and we had two literal 1% wipes before finally defeating him, and even that kill didn't go down without deaths on our team.

The final boss is similarly tricky but in a slightly different way, as his "enrage" consists of faster and faster add spawns that quickly overwhelm you. Again it took us several tries to get him down, and even then our group was wiped out by the adds afterwards. This led to the meanest encounter of the flashpoint of course - a bug which caused us to get released back at the start, with no way to get back to the boss's corpse. I bet there was a rare decoration or something among all the loot we missed out on. Hopefully Bioware will fix that soon.

As first gameplay impressions go, Crisis on Umbara has managed to make a good one. Of course I will likely run it many, many more times over the coming weeks and months, and we'll see whether that positivity will last or whether unexpected annoyances will rear their head after sufficient repetition. For now though, I'm one happy flashpoint lover.


Finding Challenge While Levelling

After I finished replaying the Imperial agent story the other week, I made it my next levelling goal to finally finish my second playthrough of the Jedi knight story. The poor Sentinel I've been using for this purpose has been picked up and dropped again more often than a bouncy ball - originally created in May 2014, she only hit level 40 the other week. However, I think she might finally be getting somewhere, having finished her class story on Belsavis yesterday.

An interesting side effect of the haphazard way in which I've played her in the past is that she's only just high enough level for her class story and by this point actually slightly under-levelled. And boy, does this ever make for an interesting experience. I previously touched on this when I spoke about levelling my Sniper for the DvL event last year purely through the class story, but I thought at this point it probably deserved a post of its own.

I'm generally in favour of the level sync introduced in 4.0, but I was not a fan of how much easier the levelling game became at the same time, and I've been unwilling to blame that purely on level sync alone. Surely Bioware also must have reduced all the mobs' hitpoints at the same time or something? Honestly, at this point I'm not so sure anymore, because not being synced is such a different experience it's almost unreal.

Above anything else, gear actually matters. I don't know how the algorithm behind it works, but purely based on experience I'm confident in saying that levels trump gear any time. If you are over-levelled and being synced down, it doesn't matter if you're still wearing the greens from the starter planet, you'll be noticeably more powerful than your opponents. But if you're actually the same level... oh wow.

My Sentinel is wearing some very old weapons in specific, and it's amazing how long it takes me to kill anything. And I'm loving it! It's even more noticeable than it was with my Sniper, because with that one I ran with my companion as dps, so even if my own damage was low, my companion was still killing things reasonably quickly. My Sentinel on the other hand has her companion usually set to heals, so while she's pretty much never in danger of dying, combat is a much slower affair. You may be wondering how exactly this is supposed to be a good thing - well, let me count the ways:

With weak mobs not automatically dying in one or two hits, even they can be interesting to fight. If I get a crit that does kill the mob outright, it feels exciting. If I use one of those abilities that stuns weak mobs on top of doing damage, I actually notice it and it makes a difference.

Silvers actually have enough health for me to practise my rotation. And I don't mean that in a "high-end-raider practising on a target dummy" kind of way, though I suppose you could do that too. I actually have no idea what the optimal rotation for my class and spec is supposed to be, but I'm at least learning a little. Because abilities come off cooldown several times during a single battle, I notice how they can be woven together in different ways, and I'm reminded that hey, I should remember to use that one more often because it gives me a noticeable damage boost. It's fun and engaging. Gold mobs take it up another notch and almost feel like mini boss battles, which is how I remember them from the early game.

I also get to practise different strategies on different mob groups. For example when I encounter a silver and several weak mobs together, it makes sense to kill the weak ones first, right? Except... since I'm playing a dot spread spec, I sometimes focus on the silver instead and then hope that the weak mobs will die from the spread damage in the meantime. It doesn't always work, but it's fun to try.

I suppose if you didn't have your companion set to heal, there would also be a more serious risk of dying. The only time I've died recently was when I accidentally drove right into the middle of an Imperial base and got mowed down by the defense turrets. But I did come close another time when I accidentally sent my active companion off on a crew skill task and suddenly found myself in combat with an Ackley and another mob with no companion by my side. I scrambled for my cooldowns and to quickly find a medpack in my bag (I'm so used to not needing them that I hadn't even put one on my bar) but just about made it through. It felt quite exhilarating.

It does make me a little sad to think that this side of the game is unlikely to be seen by many players these days because it's just so easy to over-level content. The only reason my Sentinel is where she is is because I've done almost nothing but the class story on her since 4.0, plus a couple of PvP matches here or there. My Sniper managed to stay on track by doing only her class story plus full map exploration on every planet. If you did the planetary story arcs on top of that, or even a flashpoint or two, you'd already be likely to overshoot your target again.

It shouldn't be this hard to find a bit of challenge while levelling a new character. I don't mind that people can have it easy, but it would be nice if the experience was a bit more granular, with level sync and overpowered companions not being quite so overbearing by default. I mean, the levelling experience I'm describing in this post isn't even "hard"; as I said I'm rarely in danger of dying. But it gives me a chance to actually take in the mobs around me and what my abilities do to them, instead of just blindly AoE-ing my way through multi-mob packs and killing the large opponents in a few hits.