[SWTOR] In which Bioware finally nail single player gameplay

A funny thing happened to me this week while playing Star Wars: the Old Republic. My Sith Warrior chick (partner says accusingly, “She looks evil!” but I think he’s just influenced by being in the same room as me while I’m playing) is in the final stages of her class quest now, and I’ve noticed a couple of difficulty ramps in the single player game as I go. But the funny thing is that this week I realised that I was enjoying the single player difficulty, in fact I’m enjoying it far more than WoW.

I may have noted previously that Bioware have done a good job in making the set piece, end of plot arc, boss fights harder than the comparable missions while not being minmaxingly hard (ie. you can beat them if you play carefully even with a randomish build and your choice of companion). But looking back, they have also been teaching you as a player to figure out how to work out a decent rotation (ie. which of your abilities do most damage so you should use them as soon as they come off cooldown, etc), how to use interrupts, using the scenery to help, figuring out how best to handle groups of linked mobs, using your companion to help out, and so on.

For example, I struggle to take on two strong mobs of my level … unless I let my companion pull one while I kill the other and then taunt the spare one back. Even the wimpiest of companions, assuming they’re geared at their level, can tank a mob for awhile on their own. Where there is a strong mob with one or more normal ones, the normals usually do more damage and die faster so it’s best to kill them first. Corner pulls can be used to drag ranged mob out of a room. As an MMO dino, I’m familiar with a lot of these tactics, but I get a kick out of how much more manageable the game becomes when I start using them rather than just piling straight into a fight.

And what’s more, I’m finding that the difficulty supports the storytelling. Not in every case for sure, but the way the single player class quests balance increasing difficulty with increasing story importance has worked really well to draw me in. And in a way that DAO/ DA2 never quite managed (much as I enjoyed them as story games).

I like that as an MMO, players can also choose to level up or bring friends to make the quests easier if they prefer that route. Choices are good. But I think Bioware have hit on some very solid  gameplay in the single player quests, still in the MMO mould for sure, but a subtle improvement nonetheless.

Now the interesting thing about single player difficulty is that part of the difficulty is because you’re still learning the game and the class. I’m sure if I played it through again on a new Sith Warrior, I’d find the quests far easier. Partly because I know what’s going to happen in the fights, and partly because I’ve learned how the class handles. So I want to record that NOW on my first ever playthrough, without looking up builds, gear, or rotations and learning as I go I found that the difficulty level was fun and appropriate. I like only having to worry about one companion, as opposed to the party based DAO, it keeps things fluid and dynamic while not having too many NPCs to gear up and worry about at the same time.

I hope that this is something Bioware can build on in future content. I don’t expect single player endgame to be their main focus, but in SWTOR, they may actually have built one of the more solid gameplay engines of any of their games that I have played. So I found it interesting that Tobold wondered today whether the game will be appealing once the stories have run out — it’s a valid thought, and I enjoy the stories, but I think the gameplay has a lot of merit too.

[SWTOR] 10 things you need to know about consumables

There are four main types of consumable in SWTOR, and the reason it’s worth knowing about them is that they are all pretty good and can add a lot of survivability and power to your character. Bioware have been quite good about scattering medical droids who sell healing and buff potions all over the gameworld, and healing potions are also frequent drops from mobs. Vendors in cantinas will also sell buff food. And you will occasionally find stim vendors out in the world – I think this is just where Bioware decided that they needed extra vendors standing around for RP purposes because they just split off some of the goods that medical droids would otherwise sell.

I’ve been running Biochem, and it’s balanced oddly. The crafted consumables are better than bought ones, but also can be expensive to make at the top end, so I’m not sure that people have a good idea how to price them on the AH at the moment.

In any case, here’s ten things you’ll want to know about better living through chemistry in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

1. Store bought stims (buff potions) typically last for an hour and will buff one of your core character attributes (might, willpower, aim, cunning) – there are also Stims that boost presence (this buffs your companion) and endurance.

bluestim

2. Crafted stims will boost power or defence in addition to one of your core character attributes. Fortitude stims are the tank buffs which buff defence as well as endurance, the other stims all boost power as a secondary stat. Blue crafted stims will last for double the length (2 hours) and will not disappear after death – they’re the equivalent of WoW flasks. Purple crafted stims are for Biochem crafters only, are equivalent to green crafted stims and are reusable.

foodbuff

3. In Cantinas, there are vendors who will also sell you food buffs. The ones I have seen so far is a food buff that improves your out of combat regen for 30 mins (arguably not v useful since every class has an out of character regen ability, but this will probably save time if you’re speed levelling.) The other is a 30 min buff to presence (ie. boosts companion power), which does stack with stims. So if you’re struggling with solo content, the food presence buff might be one to keep in mind.

4. Green crafted healing potions will typically heal for more than vendor bought ones, and can come in at different level ranges also.

medpacs

5. There are also green crafted healing potions which heal your companion as well as your character. Potions which just heal your character will be called XXXX medpacs, potions which also heal your companion will be called XXXX med units. If your companion has died, one of these potions will res it in combat as well as healing – I don’t entirely know if that’s intended but it is what happens at the moment. I find these invaluable when I’m trying solo content that is a bit tough for my level.

6. Blue crafted healing potions will typically provide a HoT as well as the initial burst of healing. The HoT heals for half again of the initial healing burst over 15s. They’re good, but I’m not sure they’ll be worth the extra cost to craft.

adrenal

7. Adrenals are short term potions which provide a large kick to one of your secondary  stats for 15s (ie. power, surge, crit, et al). I haven’t seen any vendor adrenals, so these may only be available from Biochem crafters. Adrenals are all blue items, except for the purple reusable ones (Biochem only).

8. There are also triage adrenals which increase your tech/force power for 15s but reduce the amount of damage you do during that time by 50%. If it’s not obvious from the name, these are meant as healer buffs – if you’re not a healer use one of the other adrenals.

9. The cooldown on medpacs is 90s (ie. you can use one every 1.5 mins). The cooldown on adrenals is 3 mins. There is no cooldown on stims, but they are longterm buffs that you won’t need to spam unless you’re dying a lot. The reason Biochem is probably overpowered at the moment is that they can make reusable versions of any of the green crafted items for themselves. So as a Biochem crafter, you can if you want have access to a heal potion every 90s, an adrenal every 1.5 mins, and buff stims up all the time without having to rustle up the large number of materials or credits that it would cost anyone else to buy this.

10. You can use all of these consumables in PvP.

voss

This is a shot I took on Voss. There do seem to be rather more orange/ brown planets than strictly necessary ….

Does ‘news’ about bugs mess with our gaming?

Quick post: In today’s SWTOR patch, a bug has been fixed in which one of the social emotes messed with combat.

Yes, it’s bad and needed to be fixed quickly, which is happening. But what intrigues me is how many news sites (like Massively, RPS etc) posted up about this bug as part of their news cycle yesterday.  As a player, I would usually assume the polite thing to do is quietly inform the devs about any bugs, and not tell absolutely everyone else on the planet first so that they can mess with the game too. I’m not sure how that exactly would apply to news sites, but it felt odd to me reading stories that seem designed to encourage players to use exploits in a recently released game.

Do you feel it’s legitimate news, or are there ethical issues around publicising bugs in multi-player games?

[SWTOR] What exactly is an evil society like? And the pure joys of barrel kicking!

quesh1

(Quesh is not the prettiest of planets, but Bioware artists really do shine with these surreal industrialised settings.)

One of the joys of playing through SWTOR as a Sith is that you get some solid insights into how a fantasy society that is run by evil wizards who can murderise high ranking military officers at a whim might operate. It is a tall order to make this plausible in a way that doesn’t have players screaming, “Why exactly has there not yet been a military coup?” In fact, why would any semi-sane sith (let’s assume these exist) kill a competent military officer just because they were in a snit anyway? And the perennial question with Sith is why any of them bother taking apprentices, when it’s inevitable that said apprentice will one day try to kill or betray you.

Bioware has shown in the Dragon Age and ME games that they’re adept at designing plausible yet alien fantasy societies. The dwarven society in Orgrimmar Orzammar (thanks Risandre) was a delight, as was the strange world of the Qun in DA2, and even the Dalish elves had an alien yet believable polish. And they’ve done it again with the Empire in SWTOR.

As my warrior’s story progresses, I have been involved in  conflicts which saw military units caught up in the middle of political spats between backstabbing Sith Lords and seen how the commanders respond. There’s a variety of responses from “Argh, you sith and your infighting again!!! (Dies)” to “I expected no different, and it is an honour to die in the service of the empire.” Also I get a sense of the brown nosing that officers show to Sith when they want favours done, which tends to make them (officers) as a class seem quite spineless if you’re a) not used to it and b) don’t realise that they’re not actually like that all the time.

Another nice touch is the difference between the officer class and front line soldiers. Officers tend to have posher accents, and be far more polite. With practice, you’ll be able to tell exactly what type of military NPC you’re speaking to just by listening to the voice acting, even if they don’t explicitly tell you. I’ve been more aware of this since having Lieutenant Pierce as a companion, since he actually likes it when you are uppity to officers, but understanding of front line troops. In other words, the NPC companion is quite class conscious, so I tend to be also when he’s with me.

Another theme that comes through is how having a Sith Lord as a mentor/ employer can do great things for a military career. There’s a risk of being casually force-choked, or thrown away in a spat of Sith infighting, but the rewards for an ambitious officer (like Quinn) can also be very good. In a recent cut scene, he noted that he had been recommended for a promotion, but would need my approval for it to go through. It’s these little touches that show the thought that has gone into the background.

And as for the apprentices, it becomes clear that having a strong, competent apprentice who can get things done will vastly improve the reach, and maybe even the reputation of an ambitious Dark Lord. And equally clear that they tend to have at least two apprentices each, so that they can keep them occupied by being at each others throats. Also, woe betide the apprentice who seems to be getting a bit too powerful, too full of themselves, or too difficult to control – a smart Sith Lord will shoot first. I’ve enjoyed being able to see through the storylines how different Sith Lords might handle their apprentices, from my character’s master to Darth Gravis on Taris who seems extraordinarily laid back yet still manages to set you in competition with his apprentice without even breaking a sweat.

Barrels, and how to destroy them

Apparently Diablo 2 is 15 years old this week. Which seems like an appropriate time to celebrate one of the ground breaking game mechanics that made the game such a great success. Destroyable barrels.

Who has not played D2 and felt the sheer joy of kicking barrels, watching them explode impressively, and seeing if they contain any interesting loot/ monsters. This never got old for me.

barrel

And maybe this is why it makes me so happy to have explody barrel things in SWTOR also. This screenshot shows how they are presented in the game, if you see those 4 red arrows around an object, that means it can explode.

What took me awhile to realise is that even if your character has negligible ranged attacks, you can still explode the barrel from range. You mouse over it until the hand icon turns solid gold, then right click. BOOM. And any mobs close by get thrown onto their backs and take some damage.

It’s the simple things. Next post I’ll talk about more useful hints and tips, and potions/ heal potions/ buff potions in specifics.

[SWTOR] Quest of the day, companion chat, and when is a ban not a ban?

taris1

I’ve mentioned before that I love the graphical sides of being in cities or built up areas in SWTOR. In this screenshot, my Sith Warrior surveys the departures board (I assume) in Taris spaceport.

Taris is interesting in many ways, especially to anyone who remembers it from KOTOR when you encounter the planet before [spoiler alert] it is turned into an industrial wreck. This game takes place around 300 years later, and although Taris is mostly a swampy ruined wreck, it’s been interesting enough that both Republic and Empire have forces there and there are some alien settlements also. It’s not an especially pretty planet, but gives the Bioware artists more opportunities to show their chops on wrecked out industrial landscapes. And swamp.

What I found enthralling is that my class quest here could be boiled down to “find and kill four named republic generals.” That doesn’t sound too exciting, and mechanically it is exactly what your character is doing. And yet, due to the writing, the quest presentation, music, and pacing, it included some of my most memorable moments in the class story so far.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers but one questline in particular sees you furiously racing against time to unlock a safe room inside a reactor that is about to blow up, after having unmasked a ‘fake’ general, and been jumped by republic troops who clearly have no qualms about running into a reactor that’s about to blow up just for the chance of downing a sith. The timer was down to 10s, the music was getting more exciting and intense, and a speech option came up. I said to my companion (Quinn), “Do you have any last words?” And he said, “My lord, you know how I feel about you.”

I laughed. Why can’t you ever say anything that romantic when we’re actually on the ship and don’t have 10s left to live?, I thought, although that option wasn’t actually present. I have enjoyed having Quinn around while questing. He does occasionally pitch in to suggest ideas, or comment on military plans that someone else suggested. Annoyingly, he’s always right. But that comment above came from left field, I was expecting him to have a smart suggestion.

But now I’m curious as to what other companions might have to say for themselves during quests and whether it’s comparable, or if Quinn is an outlier and the writers just liked him.

Pacing

Because I’m a) really digging the game and b) am on holiday at the moment, I’ve been online much more than I usually would. There is a risk in Bioware-type games that once hooked, you can burn through the quests very quickly because you’re just that keen to find out where the story is going. I remember feeling similarly exhausted in Cataclysm-era WoW, because the quest pacing was fast enough that you could burn through content like a three year old in a sweet shop. And it gave me the quest equivalent of a sugar rush back then too.

I am already thinking that I may play another Sith Warrior alt, and take it more slowly next time, writing up each planet or questline as I do it with commentary.

Having said that, the pacing in SWTOR is generally fine (this is on a scale where LOTRO is glacial and WoW is superfast).  It’s a bit slower than WoW because of travel time, listening to quest mobs (if you don’t spacebar through them), and zoning in and out of your ship, and although some would disagree, I find that it gives you some slow time to appreciate the scenery rather than rushing questquestquest.

I have found the difficulty generally good in the game. I’ve been upgrading my gear via quests and gear tokens (which you get for planetary quests), and using biochem to keep myself supplied with healing and buff potions. I am enjoying that I can sometimes die in quests, but that when this happens, I can try again with a bit more thought and get through it. The end of chapter 1 was a particular high point and I died about 4 times in one part before I got the hang of it. Finishing that questline and picking up my legacy name felt like that much more of an achievement.

We’ve also had a chance to run some more flashpoints, none of which have really compared to Black Talon in terms of story. Which is not to say that they haven’t been fun. Plus you may meet some old friends in Boarding Party/ The Foundry which was split into two parts so as presumably to be more manageable for players. (I don’t think either is especially long but they work fine as shorter halves.) We’re still dual tanking them, although I’m now taking on more of the single bosses/ tougher mobs.

The bans, they burn

Top ‘news’ in the game this week was that some people were temporarily banned for doing something exploity in the level 50 zone with their low level alts. (The official explanation for this is behind this link.)

If you read the comments on the RPS story about this, you’ll see how quickly some players get riled up about this. And how people are able to (with a straight face, I presume) argue that innocent players who just wanted to test the limits of what the game allowed them to do are being HURT by this evil EA attitude.

But as an experienced MMO player, I tend to assume that ultra competitive players have a propensity to be obsessive cheating gits (as shown by every exploit in WoW ever) who are not satisfied with merely finding interesting loopholes and reporting them but will then go on and exploit them as if their lives depended on it until stopped, and if that ruins the game for other people then that’s seen as an added bonus. So colour me unsurprised when RPS later posted a more nuanced explanation, and were immediately accused by their readers of pro-EA bias.

What we get from this is that the readers of RPS tend to be twats. Or maybe it’s just that most gamers are twats (present company excepted, naturally), the jury is still out.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no issues with people playing competitively. But if something needs a fix that cannot be done immediately (ie. needs time to decide what the best way is to proceed), I have no issues with temporary bans being handed out while that happens as long as the players were given the chance to stop the offending behaviour first. Also I have no issues with people being banned for gold farming. And one of the good things about playing a sub game is that they usually have active CS teams to deal with this kind of thing, which I believe makes the game better and fairer for everyone else.

And now, here is two sith dancing (/clubdance is great)

dancing

Out with the old year, in with the new. MMO predictions for 2012

I didn’t make a great job of my predictions last year. TAGN has a super gaming roundup of 2011, covering what actually did happen.

I was right about mobile gaming becoming ever more popular although I’m not sure any specific game has rivalled Angry Birds yet for popularity, and also right about the Android market growing. I predicted something big for Zynga and sure enough they went public, although the share price hasn’t been performing well.

I predicted e-sports to grow, which I’m not really sure has happened.

I also predicted more emphasis (in the PC and Xbox world at least) on Indie games/ bundles/ etc. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the breakout indie MMO, but this year has seen some super and well received new indie games. Dungeons of Dredmore and Terraria have been two that have seen particular play round my house. Avadon the Black Fortress is the one on my backburner, as it’s on my hard drive but I’ve just not had the time yet to play it.

Any fans of roguelikes out there? Check out the results of the Ascii Dreams Roguelike of the year 2011; TOME4 heads the list with Dungeons of Dredmore close behind.

I said, of the Nintendo 3DS, “This year also marks the release of the Nintendo 3DS, the 3D version of the DS. Whilst it will sell well enough to be marked as a success, they will signally fail to persuade most users to upgrade.” And also said I didn’t think it would be a good year for handhelds. Well I should have had the courage of my convictions, the 3DS was very disappointing for Nintendo. 3d in general has failed to really sell itself to gamers.

Blizzard failed to announce Titan, and also didn’t announce an emphasis on crafting features in the next expansion, preferring to focus on Pandas and pet battles.

Sure enough, GW2, TSW, and WoD failed to launch this year. However, D3, ME3 both also did not get released in 2011. And I’m not sure Microsoft has been able to do much to clear up the Xbox live chats.

MMOs I have played most this year have been Rift with bursts of WoW and LOTRO. I did (and still do) like Rift a lot, but for me the pace of new content and sameish events was a bit overwhelming. I wound up feeling that my lifestyle just didn’t support keeping up with Rift, not because it was grindy but because new stuff kept turning up so often. I think Trion did a super job with the game and will look forwards to seeing future games from them.

And as it turns out, the game I bought and played on Steam most last year was actually Duels of the Planeswalkers, the MTG computer game. I still think this is a pretty excellent game so there ;)

Predictions for 2012

I’ll keep things tight this year. The recession/ economic climate is affecting players and their expectations more now, and although you might think this would benefit F2P games, I wonder if people are preferring to both save their money and stick to more manageable games (ie. standalone indie/ older/ games) with known good reviews. Has the F2P sheen worn off? Are there so many F2P competitors now that it’s easy for players to hop from one game to the next before they get in deep enough to be wanting to spend much money? I suspect this may be the case. Zynga’s share price implies that others wonder the same thing.

Is it that the MMO fad is over? No, SWTOR’s release proves that there are plenty of people still willing and able to plonk down their cash for a solid AAA Diku style MMO. I think this game will have better legs than the naysayers are predicting – yes some of us will have level 50 characters by the end of the first free month, but if you enjoy the basic gameplay, there’s replayability in the alts, and the game itself is just good fun which is worth a lot. I know I’m recommending it to friends who I wouldn’t normally point towards an MMO.

Better legs in this case may mean stays strong for 6 months rather than 3, it’ll be down to Bioware in the end to persuade people to stick with it. I personally would like to see better social features, but they will have to balance this up with adding more content in other areas too.

There has been a fair amount of upheaval involved this year with sub games switching to a F2P model. While a sub game can survive on retaining players, a F2P game needs to either keep raking the newbies in or focus hard on retaining the actual spenders. So expect the big name AAA F2P games to push out paid for expansions/ patches this year even if the value for money isn’t great. LOTRO will continue to expand Isengard but Turbine will find a way to release something that the max level player base will want to buy (probably extra content in some way).

Diablo 3 will release this year, and although it’ll be a solid game, it won’t be the massive excitement that fans had been hoping. I’ve seen hints of this in beta reviews – people liked it, but there was something lacking. There will however be much focus on the real money auction house, which may overwhelm the rest of the gameplay in commentary (like the game is just a basic mechanic to support the AH). Torchlight 2 will also release this year, and will actually be the better game in many ways (world design, pace) although I would put my money on Blizzard when it comes down to solid game mechanics and class design. I will play and enjoy both of them.

Mass Effect 3 will release this year, will be highly successful. It’s hard to say whether Bioware are over-expanding when they have different teams to do all of these things, however being able to release a hugely successful standalone game at the same time as running a successful MMO will be quite an accomplishment. They will also announce DA3.

Pandaria (WoW expansion) will not release before the Summer. This will be at around the 6 month mark for SWTOR and a lot of players will go back to WoW to check out the new stuff. Blizzard has a real chance to keep them if they play to their strengths. But now the poor WoW voice acting will be more in the spotlight (it’s not that players need voice acting but if it’s there, the bar has now gone up.)

The Secret World will release, to mixed reviews. I still feel that I don’t know much about this game, except that they’ve been relying on ARGs to push out word of mouth. If they stick to that type of model, it could gain a small but very dedicated hardcore following and keep them. I wish them luck.

GW2 will release towards the end of 2012. I really cannot decide how I feel this one will do – but it will depend a lot on how well the dynamic quests and PvP work with the player base, and whether they make the WAR mistake of balancing it with the assumption of constantly full servers at all levels. I’d like to see GW2 succeed.

CCP had an anno horribilis in 2011 and are now claming to have cut back development on everything except Dust and space stuff in EVE. I predict slowly falling numbers for EVE – devs have been leaving, and I suspect internal confidence at CCP is falling. They hopefully will be able to keep most of the core fanbase happy but I think the events of this year will have affected player confidence too.

Other MMOs which have been hyped for 2012 include Tera and ArcheAge (both korean MMOs, I think), and Battle for Dominus (or Dominus as it is now known) which is a more PvP/DaoC type of western MMO. I wish them all luck but I don’t see any breakout successes there. I think Dominus could do well in its niche if it can attract a solid core playerbase.

Aion is going F2P in early 2012, as is Startrek Online (I recommend STO for people who want a more involved space combat than either SWTOR or EVE) there aren’t many other games left to do so other than WAR and WoW.

The games I am currently most looking forwards to in 2012 are (aside from D3/ Torchlight 2): Journey (PS3), and Dragon’s Dogma (PS3) — based on having seen/demoed them both at conventions last year.

There have been several large browser based MMOs launched in 2011. It will be interesting to see whether this trend will continue and how devs adapt the gameplay to the general strengths of browsers. In my opinion, browser games are fantastic for strategy, but I still am not really sold on them for straight out action. Still, that’s my pick for MMO trend in 2012, more browser games.

I will also be keeping an eye out for more news of Three Rings work on a new Doctor Who MMO (they made Puzzle Pirates and Spiral Knights, and were recently bought by SEGA.)

The LoL gameplay model has been fantastically successful in 2012 (and previously), which makes me wonder if some dev (maybe Valve or even Blizzard) will announce an MMO with combat based on that mechanic. A left field prediction might even be that Popcap would be encouraged to enter the MMO field with their polished casual gameplay.

2012 will end with no major new AAA MMO being announced as in development (other than possibly the one stated above), and will be seen as the end of an era. But the success of Skyrim in 2011 may mean more companies are considering large sandbox style open world single player games … will that take us back to the start of a new RPG cycle?

[SWTOR] Notes on bonus missions, slicing nerfs, did WoW ruin PUGS?

aldaraan1

This is a screenshot of my character riding a speeder along a river in Aldaraan, which is a very pretty planet. Because the speeder hovers anyway, there’s no real need to ever swim again once you have one. My trousers aren’t actually green – character classes in SWTOR have strong colour schemes and Sith Warrior is generally black and red.

I’m still having a blast with the game. I got to the end of Act I (each class story is in three acts), had some fairly tight fights and cool scenes, and am now a Sith Lord. Go me! I also have a legacy – which is like a family name. You don’t have to actually use it as a surname, but from now on every time you get xp, you also get legacy xp. I compare it to guild xp in WoW except that we don’t yet know what you’ll be able to get with legacy xp, that’s for a future patch.

I called my Legacy family De’Nevers, after the swashbuckling Duc de Nevers in Le Bossu (if you like swashbuckling films, try to find a copy). I figured if I’m a lightsabre/sword fighter, might as well be related to the best.

I remember vaguely comments from beta that people were concerned that there might not be enough quests to level up with. While this may be an issue on some of the starter planets, after that you’ll largely be rolling in xp. After you have finished the main storylines on a planet, you will open up some extra bonus missions which will usually feature a military quest giver who is in the spaceport. So if you’re pretty sure that you’ve done all the single player non-class quests on a planet, check out the spaceport for the bonus questgiver. Some of the bonus quests are pretty good, but mostly they give good xp and credits/ gold. Other sources of xp/credits are PvP and flashpoints.

I haven’t done a great deal of PvP but the battlegrounds I have seen show clear influence from the WAR devs. They’re interesting locations, with plenty of scenery or buildings to climb up, push people off, and generally PvP around. I have totally failed to figure out Huttball, which is a grab/capture the thingie battleground, because I never quite figured out where the goals were (clearly this is a problem if you do end up holding the ball). One of the others is an Arathi-style “capture and hold these points for X amount of time”, and the other is an attacker/defender setup which resets a few times to give both teams a chance to both attack and defend.

I couldn’t comment on PvP balance at the moment, but there’s no reason why this game couldn’t be as interesting PvP-wise as any best of breed in similar genre. It has a good feel.

Another thing I’m enjoying far too much is playing dress up with my companion/s. While the companions can wear normal gear, quest rewards on each planet will also offer a full set of companion-specific gear, each of which has a different style/ look. Sadly this isn’t orange/ moddable, so you can’t upgrade the stats later. I’m also quite enjoying picking gear for myself, this may be because cut scenes show your character’s face and torso rather more than you would usually see it in MMOs, so you get very aware of what they are wearing.

State of Crafting/ Slicing Nerfs

The patch news this week is that Slicing got an emergency nerf – while people are complaining about this on bboards, I suspect that there may be a later tweak upwards to make it harder to actually lose money on Slicing.

The bboard complaints are not surprising, although it’s interesting to see how many people didn’t see any problems with it. See, a consumer society would be just great if the bank just printed out extra money and gave it to everyone. This would clearly not affect prices, or the willingness of anyone to actually make/do stuff at all. Well.

Truth is, in an MMO, not every crafter enjoys the trading side of the game. Some people are mostly interested in making cool stuff for themselves and their friends – which is something Bioware forgot to figure in. (Maybe they don’t have many crafting nuts in the team.) If Slicing stayed as it was, the people who picked crafting because it was fun (ie. and not as a capitalist moneymaking ploy to bleed the Slicers of their not-very-hard-earned credits) would have ended up being hit very hard. Plus, prices would eventually drift upwards (aside from the crafters who couldn’t be bothered to check the market rate and settled for the default AH prices) and it would become necessary for everyone to have maxed Slicing and be using it all the time if they wanted to actually be able to afford stuff.

The Auction House in SWTOR is far from optimal at the moment. It’s not easy to search unless you know exactly what you want, and the default sales prices are driving me (and presumably other crafters nuts). The default sales price is the price that the system inserts for an item you are selling, you can then edit it manually before placing the item up on the AH for sale. This default price tends to be on the high side for green drops and on the low side for anything else.

So, for example, I know I can sell my implants for upwards of 8k because I’ve done so. But as soon as another crafter is too lazy to check current prices and just sticks some up for the default, that goes down to about 1.2k. I think the default prices prevent the market from finding its own value, which is generally bad for crafters but good for buyers. Although maybe not so good for buyers in the long run because I (and presumably others too) are not going to make things that sell for less than cost.

I never thought I would say this, but this is a game that needs an Auctioneer addon equivalent to help the prices settle and make it easier for crafters to pitch prices at the actual selling rate.

I can’t comment on what the various crafts are like at endgame. But watch out for crafted gear with extra mod/augment slots. Those are produced when a crafter crits, and are likely to be the most desired crafted gear at endgame. I suspect non-critted gear will end up being very cheap because you have to make a few of them until a crit turns up that you can sell for more money  (this is similar to the mastercrafting system in DaoC).

My PUG experiences

PUGs, as in any game, can be good or bad. I’ve had great experiences with PUGs for heroic/ group quests on planets, people being generally cool, willing to explore, and work together. Flashpoint PUGs can be a different matter.

I ran Esseles (the first republic flashpoint) with a PUG on an alt, and it felt like being dragged back into WoW kicking and screaming. The moment we got into the instance, the rest of the group started whining about “press space to get through conversations faster” (it’s the equivalent of gogogo). Someone complained at me rolling greed on an item I couldn’t use, while later rolling need on something they couldn’t use either.

I told them I hadn’t seen the instance before and was planning to watch the full video. They said that was OK, with a hint that I should have mentioned this previously. Since I don’t really care what random people think of me (although these are randoms on my server), I’m not sweating it. But it wasn’t anywhere near as fun as running the flashpoint with a group of friends/ guildies. I wish people would just chill out, accept that some runs will take a few minutes longer, and not harass people they don’t know to rush through faster. It feels like a WoW plague that is spreading, I hope I’m wrong.

On the other hand, planet chat in Tython (Jedi starting zone) on a RP server was worryingly solemn. People were discussing the meaning of justice, and other ethical issues. I don’t know if it is like that all the time, but it was quite cool, and I’ve never seen a general chat quite like it.

[SWTOR] Let me tell you about my character (Sith Warrior – minor spoilers), and notes on difficulty

Fortunately (?) for my loyal readers, Bioware decided to put a maintenance window in from 10am-4pm local time today. Which means that now that I’ve figured out screenshots, I can talk more about my sith warrior and why I love it.

EA did note in a recent press release that over 850k sith warriors have been created over the holidays, so I don’t feel particularly special in that respect. Still, this one is MINE. EA are also claiming “fastest growing subscription MMO ever” which I’m sure is true, and it will be interesting to see if/when they break 2 million subscriptions. (More of an if really, because that would definitely put the game in a different ballpark than anything other than WoW.)

I make no predictions as to what the community/size will look like in 3 or 6 months. But then, I’m wavering on whether ANY new MMO could retain the majority of customers for over 6 months these days, sandbox or themepark. Bioware have already announced that they’re working on a new operation (raid) and flashpoint (instance) for the next update and it would make sense to focus the first new content on the hardcore since they’re the ones who rush through to endgame most quickly.

Anyway, on to my sith warrior… with pictures!

spinksSW1

The top picture here is Spinks riding on a speeder in Tattooine, this isn’t my personal transport (sadly that looks more like a floating lawnmower), it’s the local public transport but I thought it was a nice design. Bottom left is Spinks looking out on Nar Shaddaa which is a moon/planet taken up entirely by a Bladerunner-esque city. And the bottom right screenshot was taken inside an instance, in which I’m standing next to the viewing platform in a spaceship looking down at a planet’s surface.

As you can see, my whistle stop tour of the known galaxy to spread mayhem and destruction is going pretty well. The planets are beautiful, with plenty of open space to explore and maybe find lore objects or holocrons (unless you are totally cheating and look the locations up online in which case you can’t really call yourself an explorer). Each one has a theme, backed up with its own music, colour scheme, and architecture. So you never really get the jarring zone transition of going from a desert to a jungle that’s such a feature in many open world MMOs.

One thing that Bioware have executed brilliantly is lots of large cities that look like actual futuristic cities and not just a small collection of houses with a corner shop and pub. The urban architecture on SWTOR is absolutely stunning. It’s not true open world  where you could go into every house and interact with whoever lives there, start your own business, build your own house, but in truth very few games are. SWTOR has gorgeous themepark style cities to explore, and I love them.

The gameworld itself feels spacious. Aside from the large open vistas when you are outside a city, Bioware are comfortable with making huge cathedral-like buildings when they feel like it, even for a one man instanced class phase. There are small buildings too, but I think the larger ones add to the general epic feel.

The main hub though is the fleet which is where you’ll tend to go to meet up for flashpoints, use the auction house or bank, train crew skill recipes et al. If you don’t fancy the fleet there are other cities you could use as your own personal hub but they’ll tend to involve a slightly longer journey (Kaas City and Nar Shaddaa for Empire both have auction houses, trainers and banks, for example.) Actually travelling from one planet to another is done via your space ship, which you acquire via class questline on the second planet you visit. So you have to get to your ship via the local space port, take off, select your destination via the star map, warp through, and then exit. This doesn’t actually require any piloting ability, it’s similar to the Mass Effect style of teleporting to your destination. It does take a few minutes though, especially if you are lagging.

spinksSW2

Top screenshot here is inside a palace in Aldaraan, with my handy companion and a rebellious noble who I captured and am delivering to justice (or my personal variant that once met justice for an awkward blind date before deciding that they really had nothing much in common.) My class storyline is exciting mostly because I’m starting to care more about it and the various characters involved. I want to see what happens next, I recognise foreshadowing as it is happening. It isn’t a coincidence that a couple of the quest NPCs associated with long planetary questlines recently have both warned me about my sith master, hinting that my long term interests may not be his.

The second screenshot is from Tattooine, and an encounter that I had with my darkside shadow (that’s why she’s looking especially murky) who also told me off about being overly light side. She was extremely convincing. I am reconsidering my character’s morality strongly right now, and this is the kind of story based experience which is making the game so compelling.

Tattooine, although I didn’t realise it at the time, has also hosted a couple of the most memorable quests I’ve run so far. One was part of the class quest, where your warrior is instructed to go search out a sand demon and bathe in its blood. “Simple,” you think, “Mr Sand demon, meet Mr Lightsabre.” But the Jedi you are tracking down apparently accomplished this without killing. So the question is, are you feeling competitive enough to say “Well if she could do it then so can I!!!” or do you just kill the thing and get the blood and have done with it? I went with the first option, and felt pathetically proud when I was able to pick out responses that allowed me to do it. Clearly at some point you’ll be able to look this stuff up online – but by doing that you’ll miss out on how it /feels/ to think it through yourself. This is what MMOs have lost by getting rid of puzzles that require you to think things through.

The other Tattooine questline I enjoyed was about an ancient alien artifact with a corrupting influence. This for me was a great example of how good questing can be. There was lots of travelling, fighting, talking to NPCs, and the final fight in an ancient tomb was very well balanced for me. I won, but used all my cooldowns and ended up on a sliver of health.

SWTOR isn’t a hard game, but I do find it entertaining that the harder bosses in the single player storyline are noticeably tougher. It’s a place where the mechanics really underpin the storytelling. Although there was one fight on a hidden orbital station that I found really tough, only to realise afterwards that there were two tanks full of healing gas that I could have broken mid-fight to heal myself up. “Oh!” I thought, “that’s how I should have done it.” But there was no time before the fight to explore the scenery and figure that out.

In which I remember I was going to talk about flashpoints

I have not been religiously running every flashpoint or heroic/ group quest as they come up for me, but the flashpoints I have seen so far have ranged from “really fun” (Black Talon) to “kind of cool” (Athiss, Mandalorian Raiders — both of which are more similar to WoW instances  in terms of the layout).

My sith warrior is Vengeance specced. That means her advanced class is Juggernaut, but I’m focussing on a dps tree. I still do get some baseline abilities that help with tanking and I have been tanking the instances. It would be truer to say that we’ve tended to dual tank them, which works quite well given that I’m not currently full tank spec. The sith warrior (unsurprisingly) reminds me a lot of Vanilla-esque WoW warriors in that their AE threat isn’t very impressive, and they have a sunder armour type debuff and an AE thunderclap-esque ability. They also have a variety of response skills (ie. things you can use after you have parried, or when your opponent is stunned et al) that do good damage if you use them appropriately, although elite mobs are fairly resistant to stuns and knockbacks. So being adept at target switching when you are trying to tank more than one mob will come in handy. I’ve heard complaints about the Sith Warrior’s tanking, but I’m finding it fine.

Generally, the trash mobs are fairly simple but the bosses may have more involved mechanics. None of them so far have been especially complicated, but using interrupts appropriately makes many of the encounters MUCH easier.

Mandalorian Raiders was the first instance where mobs really started to use knockbacks against us, handily knocking me off a platform mid fight. (This is where having multiple tanks gets really useful.) Lesson learned, in future I’m tanking with my back to the wall. The final boss was also good fun, teleporting around the room while turrets fired on the players from all corners. It felt like a very interactive fight, with me (as the tank) keeping the boss occupied as best I could while dps took out the turrets and Arb’s healer somehow kept us all up with some phenomenal multitasking.  I’m looking forwards to trying out the others as we level up a bit — I keep hearing that The Foundry has awesome lore, so that may be a particular high point.

[SWTOR] More impressions, is crafting broken, locating screenshots

There’s a dilemma that hits every gaming blogger when a new release comes out and you have limited time. And that is how much time to spend playing vs how much time to spend blogging about it.

cammal

I’ve been playing a fair amount of SWTOR lately, and am unashamedly really enjoying the game. Particular high points so far have been:

  • Class quests. A storyline doesn’t have to be brilliantly original if it’s well told, and these generally are. Arb and I were up late the other night, reminding each other that we needed to go to bed … but just wanting to find out what the next twist in the story was. The storytelling is clever (or manipulative if you prefer) in encouraging you to relate emotionally to what is going on. For example, I found out my contact was under attack by my current enemy and stormed back across the city to let nothing stand in my way as I wiped them out – which is quite appropriately vengeful for a sith warrior really. One of my guildies  decided to switch from darkside to lightside because of lore and something that happened in his class storyline. Scott Jennings relates the point where he succumbed to the lure of the dark side. (I think he’s playing Sith Warrior and I think I know the part he means.) At the same time, no story is going to have this effect on a player unless the player is willing to immerse themselves and allow it to happen. If you hate reading, point out the plot flaws in horror films in the middle of the cinema, and think its lame to care about stories then you’re going to have a very different experience. I did also like the suggestion I read somewhere on rpg.net that if you are a Sith Warrior, any time someone gives you a quest you should have the conversation option to execute them for insubordination. (It would make for a short game, but a bloody one.)
  • Characterisation of NPCs. Not all of them, for sure, but the writing and voice acting means they don’t have to be just blobs giving out quests if you’re willing to go with it. I do also quite like my class companions, it might be different if you hated them. Grand Moff Kilran (in the Black Talon Flashpoint) also has the most punchable voice of anyone I’ve ever met. I so hope you get to beat him up at some point. We had more fun in that flashpoint when we agreed we all hated him and picked all the most belittling responses we could.
  • Companions. It’s funny how my responses to quests are affected by which companion is with me. Vette likes it when I tell quest givers they are idiots and give them lip. Quinn approves of being polite to quest givers, especially if they are empire military types. He really is a Young Conservative at heart so I doubt that romance is going anywhere – on the other hand he’s also really really useful and keen to help and offer advice and he gets amusingly tongue tied if you flirt with him. Plus he’s a healer.
  • Group quests: we’ve done some as guild runs, others with random people, but they’re a nice way to switch up the feel from solo questing if you feel like it. The rewards are also good, but optional.
  • Flashpoints: As above. The social conversation mechanic is fun in practice, and far less irritating than you might think from reading about it. I haven’t run all of the flashpoints so far, because the way they are laid out (you have to go back to the fleet etc) tends to break up the flow of questing. But it hasn’t been hard to find groups when I have wanted to, and it’s been fun to have content to run with guildies when we are feeling sociable.
  • Guild! It’s fun to be guilded with some fellow bloggers, some of whom I’ve never played with before. So I’m enjoying the socialising, hanging out on guild chat or voice chat.
  • The morality: This is bound to be vaguely controversial because the light side/ dark side choices don’t have much effect in terms of game mechanics and the general shape of the storyline won’t change much either. And yet, I think more about the stories and the choices I make. Some of them I see discussed more widely because players disagree with the writing. I hope at least one of the quests will be as discussion-priming as the demon possessed boy in DAO. And the fact that’s possible is why I love the morality meter. And because it makes me think more about my character and where she’s coming from (she’s a spoilt sith aristo who takes lightside choices because she /can/ rather than out of any deep affiliation. And yet, sparing people just because you can may be a step on the path to something better …)

Find the screenshot

If you are wondering where SWTOR puts its screenshots, check two things:

  • Under preferences, check what key is bound to the ‘take screenshot’ option, it may not be the one you are used to.
  • On WinXp, the screenshot directory is My Documents/ Star Wars – The Old Republic/ Screenshots

Is Crafting broken in SWTOR?

Here is the current issue with SWTOR crafting: there is one gathering skill that makes money as if it was going out of fashion, with no associated risk. It is Slicing. If you just want to make money and don’t care about making stuff, take Slicing as one of your crew skills and send all your companions off to find lockboxes all of the time. You will eventually make good bank.

It’s not that all the other craft skills are bad. Cybertech and Biochem in particular can make plenty of things that people will buy. I’ve made enough from Biochem (I can sell implants as fast as I can make them, nothing else really sells so far) to buy my speeder training et al so it’s not by any means bad, but you have to work at it. They just probably won’t make as much as you would from Slicing because you have to acquire materials and then take the risk that a) other people won’t buy your stuff from the auction house or b) competition will drive prices down so that you won’t make much of a profit.

Armormech, Synthweaving, Armsmech and Artificing all make plenty of nice gear that is at least as good as anything you will find elsewhere. But there is competition from quest rewards, PvP gear, and drops from flashpoints.

At the end of the day, it’s the lack of risk in Slicing – it’s guaranteed money – which makes it so unbalanced.

It will also be interesting to see the effects of Slicing on the market. There are fewer people crafting to sell on the AH at the moment because the game is new out, and lots of people take gathering skills (incl. Slicing) as they level. But the prices they sell at are set by the Slicers since they have most money to spend on the AH.

[SWTOR] Are we there yet?

Bioware have taken the fairly brave step of allowing new players into their shiny new servers/ game in waves, depending on when they entered their pre-order codes into their accounts.

Naturally this has spawned some classic board-rage on the official boards from people who don’t think they got their money’s worth. I don’t normally have a lot of time for board rage but in this case I think they have a point. Retailers/ Bioware were charging extra for those pre-order bonuses, and I think people are entitled to know exactly what they get for their money. Stepped pre-entry might have been fairer if the pre-order had not cost extra over the box version.

Arb and I cheesed the whole thing by getting given pre-order codes for free at Comic Con back in July, so we got in early and made our characters last night. I have a pretty blue bounty hunter and a pretty red sith and a pretty green smuggler. Who knew my life was so devoid of characters with primary-coloured skin? (I know people have criticised SWTOR for the fact so many of the races are recoloured humans, but I actually kind of like the way they look. I also like that you can make dark skinned humans, and that so many of the NPCs also have dark skin. That’s been missing from far too many games, given how easy it should be to do.)

So far the early start seems to have been going very smoothly. That’s not a small thing at all, so props to Bioware and hope they can keep it up. The pre-loaded guild setup means that if you had joined a guild and noted it on the Bioware site before launch, when you log into the server to which that guild was assigned, one of your characters (you can choose which) gets an automatic invite. This has also been working neatly, and saves a lot of hassle around “omg, is anyone around who can invite me???!!” (especially if one’s guildmaster did not get into early start until near the end.)

I will write some more specific posts on particular mechanics or storytelling tricks that I think either work or don’t in this case. But I am continually blown away by how clever the camera work is in the cut scenes, showing different characters’ reactions to conversation, and giving extra information about my character from her posture and movement. I see her leaning casually against a wall, pacing up and down like a caged animal, and all in the background of whoever is actually speaking. It very effectively gives the impression of the sith warrior as a lioness, ferocious, arrogant, contained. How can you not love that?

I am trying to decide whether to give amusing updates on how my budding sith warrior is faring. I don’t want to give spoilers, but … if they’re funny…? Maybe I will mark any such with spoiler tags.

Favourite moment so far: My warrior messing around and telling her master, “If you see the emperor, say hello from me.” His response, “I’m sure he’ll be thrilled,” which sounds like nothing unless you actually heard how dripping with sarcasm the voice work was. I wonder if I’ll have that level of sark when I’m a big strapping warriorette; one can but aspire to greatness. Have also decided that my warrior will suck up to the empire military because they have nice uniforms. Other than that, it’s light side for me.

Also teamed up with a friendly inquisitor (shurely shome mistake?) to complete a couple of group quests. We died a couple of times, but never both at the same time, so were able to press on and complete them both. Naturally I have forgotten her name and didn’t friend her at the time.