[SWTOR] In which we raid, and in which factional timelines confuse me

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It must be telling that although we spent a few hours in the Eternity Vault over the weekend in an 8 man group, all my screenshots show Spinks sitting on a speeder.

This is because Bioware have introduced the most amazing raid functionality known to man (or to lazy raiders, alternatively) – a speeder where you zone in which will neatly zoom you through the instance and drop you off somewhere near the last group wipe. This pretty much blew my mind. I don’t know if it’s because I’m profoundly lazy, or because I’ve spent too much of my life running through half cleared raid instances after a wipe. You will see from the screenshots that the Eternity Vault encompasses a bizarrely wide range of environments (snowy mountains, lava pit, jungle, and ancient mechanical vault.)

The speeder did once dump us (amusingly) in the middle of a spawn of mobs (manka cats) but otherwise was very well behaved.

Anyway, back to the raid. We now have about enough level 50s to be considering an 8-man group so decided to go take a poke at the Eternity Vault. In the event, we were one person short so we PUGged a healer (by dint of asking in general chat on the fleet).

And great fun was had by all. We didn’t quite get the last boss, as people were getting tired, but had several tries and I’m pretty sure we’ll get him next time now that everyone understands the fight. I’m going to bullet point some thoughts:

  • Nice range of encounters.
  • Lots of interaction with the environment during boss fights (which I like) such as hiding behind things, moving across lava stepping stones, splitting into smaller groups, big set piece in the last fight with platforms disappearing a la Lich King.
  • There is one fight where every raider has to kill a mob solo. This type of fight is always frustrating for healers, however fun it sounds on paper to designers.
  • Raid was well tuned for our lot, who are mostly recent 50s and not all well geared. We had a couple of close calls on the kills, which is a sign of good tuning on a first raid kill.
  • Loot was nicely distributed, everyone got something. The set pieces are pre-allocated when they drop (ie. when you loot the mob, some pieces will already be marked with the name of the raider they are destined for.) This means you won’t be picking up stuff for your companions, but does make things fairly chilled out.
  • Our PUG healer friend turned out to be a chilled out hardmode raider who was very patient about helping to explain fights to us, and said afterwards that he’d had fun. It’s easy to forget that a lot of hardcore players are nice when you only ever see them bitching at you in random groups.

Final verdict: that was fun! Raiding in a chilled out group with friends is a particular type of MMO fun that’s hard to get in any other way. I remember now why I play these games.

And that’s the difference between well tuned encounters where even if you fail, you feel that you could do it next time, and some of the hard mode flashpoints where difficulty can be a bit all over the place and it’s never clear if it’s down to execution, nonoptimal group composition, lack of gear, or not understanding the fight.

Confusing Republic and Empire Timelines

Although SWTOR gives the impression of being an open world type of themepark MMO, that isn’t entirely true. Or rather, there are some planets which are mostly open world and you could run into the other faction (if you went looking for them), and others which are not.

This is because the Republic timeline doesn’t quite match up to the Empire timeline. Or rather, the two factions quest through some planets during slightly different eras. For example, Empire on Balmorra help to put down the resistance and install Darth Lachris as planetary governer. Republic get to Balmorra later in the timeline, and they help the resistance to overthrow the Empire and get to kill Darth Lachris (at least, I did on my consular).

The odd thing is that as Empire, you never hear about any of this. As far as my empire characters know, Lachris is still in charge and if I go back to Balmorra, I could go and visit her.

Similarly, Republic retake Corellia /after/ Empire have taken the planet in their storyline. And as Empire, you will never hear about this (presumably it hasn’t happened yet?)

This means that from a RP point of view, it’s very difficult to figure out what the actual state of play is politically at endgame. I think the Republic view is the more current one and that they’re actually making good headway by the game’s (current) end. But playing as Empire, you would actually think the opposite. In a true open world game, needless to say, you could go back to those Republic held planets and actually try to re-install the Empire if you wanted to do so.

But in this type of game, you have to wait for someone to write a storyline about it. Just an interesting genre effect to think about.

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

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(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.

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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.

Allods Online, and Putting a Price on Virtual Goods

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This week sees the soft launch of Allods Online, a fantasy MMO with steampunk and space opera influences from Russian based Astrum Nival.

Although the game is free to play, they’ve been careful to emphasise the phrase subscriptionless, or no subscription required. Because of course, it’s only free up to the point where players dip into the cash shop. Which may not be absolutely required, but should certainly be stocked up with things which are nice to have.

This is not a review, as I’ve only dipped into the game briefly. It reminds me a lot of launch-era WoW, with a strong influence from older games such as DaoC in areas like class design. The UI in particular will feel very familiar. As will the inevitable paladin vs warrior forum wars when people warm to the game and realise that two classes are, again, competing to tank.

But it isn’t launch era WoW, there’s more to the game than that. The classes themselves feel lively and interesting (I’m sure PvP will soon remind everyone of why having a specialist crowd control class is a bad idea but damn if it isn’t fun), and world design is gorgeous. In short, it’s a great place to be a tourist.

Still, my brief time in game was also long enough to be utterly wowed by the Empire-side Aesthetics and equally turned off by the League-side. The Empire is the slightly more evil faction, which you can tell by the fact that it includes orcs, gorgeously designed cyber zombies, and a human race who are just a bit too fond of uniforms.

Alternatively you could go with the League and their faerie winged elves, families of fluffy gerbils, and humans who are slightly less uptight about uniforms. But if you can resist the lure of soviet-style steampunk aesthetics then you’re a stronger wo/man than I.

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Empire recruiting poster, I guess.

Pricing the Cash Shop

There is a famous (and possibly fictitious) story attributed to George Bernard Shaw, which is that he once approached a famous starlet and asked if she would sleep with him for one million dollars. She laughed and said yes. So he told her he only had $10 on him and asked if she would take that. She was outraged and asked, “What kind of woman do you take me for?” He said, “We’ve already established that, now we’re just haggling over the price.”

Now here’s the thing. If you play a F2P/ subscriptionless game as anything other than a pure tourist, there’s a level on which you accept that this game is funded via a cash shop. The only question left to answer is what would you be willing to buy, and how much would you be willing to spend.

In the western market, F2P cash shops have found most purchase by selling fripperies and items which make the game more convenient, rather than actual power ups.

Today gPotato released the first version of the Allods cash shop, which caused consternation among the player base. They are currently charging $20 for a bag upgrade which involves 6 extra bag slots.

I’m in two minds about this. On one hand, it sounds like a lot to pay for a few bag slots. On the other hand, if Blizzard sold a larger backpack for $20, players would be queuing up to pay for it. And people on Second Life regularly spend more than that on items which have far less utility. And it’s going to be very tedious if these debates break out every time some cash shop decides to charge for anything.

I think the gaming market, and F2P games in particular, are still feeling out what the market will bear in terms of cash shops. I noted in links last week that Farmville was now selling an item for $42 – it doesn’t need a lot of players to buy that to make it worthwhile for the developers. So what if players ARE willing to spend that much on a few bag slots? Is a bag slot essential to play the game? Or would they make more by lowering the price to about $5?

In any case, players are raising hell on the forums. It will be interesting to see how this all comes out in the wash.