Category Archives: swtor

We’ll have to destroy them ship to ship. Get the crews to their fighters.

When it was announced that Star Wars: The Old Republic would be getting free-flight PvP space combat, my interest was piqued; being a fan of the old X-Wing series, and having spent most of my brief Star Wars Galaxies tenure jumping to lightspeed, I thought I might as well resubscribe to be first in line for starfighter access. And for free hats. Mostly the hats, to tell the truth.

I’ve only dabbled a little in space fighting since the update arrived, and I’m not sure I’ll be throwing myself into it in a big way. It all seems nice enough, you have a variety of ships, can tinker with the crew and the fittings, level up various aspects of their abilities, but the actual flying-around-and-shooting side hasn’t really grabbed me. I think I’ve been spoiled by War Thunder, which uses a “virtual instructor” so all you have to do is point the mouse in the vague direction you want to fly, and the instructor accordingly adjusts the elevator, rudder, ailerons, elevons, upperons, downerons and any other control surfaces that happen to be kicking around; once you’re pointing the right way, the camera aligns, and you’re flying straight and level. It’s a brilliantly intuitive and easy system; I was showing the game to Van Hemlock, lined him up a Spitfire for a test flight, and with minimal instruction (“press shift to go fast!”) he took off, flew around, shot up a practise target and landed, without crashing. Galactic Starfighter, like a lot of other flying/space combat games, uses more of a mouse-as-joystick approach: move the mouse left and your ship goes left until you move the mouse back to the middle of the screen, a scheme that needs a bit more practise to get to grips with.

Needing practise, it would be a nice if you were thrown into battle with fellow novices so you could all bumble around together, with your wingman struggling to put his starfighter into gear while you accidentally turn on the windscreen wipers instead of firing your blasters. With a phased approach to release (subscribers having access now, ‘preferred’ players getting access on January 14th and completely free access from February 4th), it seems that the pool of potential pilots is too small for any matchmaking niceties like taking account of player performance or ship upgrades, and most rounds I’ve played so far have been dramatic mismatches differing only in whether the Imperial forces disconsolately hang around one of the three control points for an inevitable but prolonged loss, or just get camped on their spawn point.

At this point I could knuckle down and jolly well harden the ruddy heck up, keep on plugging away and gradually improving, or… not bother. And with War Thunder and World of Warplanes available to scratch the dogfighting itch, not to mention space games like Star Conflict if gravity and an atmosphere is too much of a drag, Option 2 looks rather tempting.

Though the space combat itself hasn’t been terribly inspiring so far, Galactic Starfighter has got me back into SWTOR more generally. I’ve been on an MMO-break for a fair while, but seeing as I’d subscribed again I thought I might as well have a look at the expansion, Rise of the Hutt Cartel, that added a new planet and raised the level cap. It was rather fun to dust off my Imperial Agent and chat to the old crew again, but upon landing and actually getting into combat it was the familiar old problem of having four hotbars of random icons to get to grips with again. Fortuitously the FRR posse were just piling in, a fine opportunity to roll a new character and get back into the swing of things, and it’s been most splendid rampaging around the place and discussing the quantum state of Schrödinger’s Black Talon Captain with others.

I may still try the odd starfighter flight, then, as a bit of downtime between quests and flashpoints; perhaps once preferred players have access there’ll be a brief flurry of newcomers I might have half a chance against, while the even-more-seasoned-by-then veterans enjoy a Happy Time in a potentially extreme case of free(ish) players being content for subscribers, unless the matchmaking system keeps them apart. As part of the wider whole of SWTOR it’s nice to have options alongside the main story, the PvE on-rails flying the game launched with, conventional PvP battlegrounds, flashpoints, operations etc., but I’m not sure Galactic Starfighter is really strong enough to pull people into the game by itself, especially with dedicated projects like Elite: Dangerous and Star Citizen inching towards playability. Still, the beauty of free-to-play is that you give it a try yourself from February without any financial outlay.

You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.

Due to quests in TERA being such a general irrelevance, I find myself filtering the order of quests I undertake by giving preference to those which offer equipment upgrades; although, I’m still not sure about the technical accuracy of ‘upgrade’ in the context of a game where your character wears less armour the more they grow in power. It was always something which intrigued me about Star Wars: The Old Republic, the fact that the quests never showed a preview of the reward you’d be getting, and –perhaps due to the generally excellent storytelling– I never cared to know.

It’s a simple distinction, but an interesting one. By having the carrot waved around in front of their nose, the player rarely cares about the path they take while pulling the developer’s cart of flow. The developer, guiding the player in this way, gains a great deal of control and can instil motivation in the player, all without the need for world building or story. In fact, the reward will detract from the story in most instances, and I think it’s another area where BioWare were clever and alert to the pitfalls of the genre they were entering. The last thing you need in the Regency era ballroom of storytelling, where players are invited to twirl elegantly through the carefully choreographed steps of the plot, is a DJ in the corner with the glitter ball of phat loot, spinning to the thumping rhythm of tracks from Depeche Mode’s Some Great Reward.

TERA is a curious beast in terms of how players are directed in their questing. There is a strong World-of-Warcraft-like impetus to click through the quest text and get on with adventuring, especially considering that the combat is the stronger pillar of the game’s foundation, along with the aforementioned carrot of the rewards being presented up-front. What’s more, clicking on any highlighted name in the quest text will place a marker on the player’s map as to where that mob can be found. In essence, the game seems to be using quests as an enabler to drive the players into combat, as per the standard MMO model. However, the game also marks any mobs for which the player currently has a quest by placing an exclamation mark above their head. Here we find the ubiquitous ‘quest marker’ being employed not only as a way for players to easily find quests, but the quest mobs themselves. What I find strange is that this would be a perfectly excellent way to remove some of the production line feel from an MMO, that of grabbing quests in an area and then slaughtering all the wildlife in the vicinity until the quest tracker was full of green ticks. Being able to wander freely, and have any Mobs of Interest highlighted to the player as they explore, seems a far more natural and immersive system than the current MMO standard – Lord of the Geocachings. I really like the idea, but it’s bizarrely extraneous in a game such as TERA, where there is no discernible reason to explore the world –outside of the potential for a screenshot opportunity (of which there is an opportunity roughly every four yards in this painfully pretty game)– and every quest mob can be found with pinpoint precision, each player a laser-guided bomb of mob obliteration.

It’s interesting how small adjustments in the presentation of quests, their rewards, and their objectives, can quite dramatically change the perspective from which a player approaches them. In a game where combat is its own reward, is the loot carrot really necessary? If a game wishes to encourage exploration and adventure, should it perhaps spend time finding ways to remove the unnatural geocaching of quests, rather than inventing new game-play mechanisms? Mechanisms which are layered on top of the already proven questing system, and thus often feel forced.

As the fundamental enabler of flow in MMOs for many years, it’s curious to see how little has changed in the design of quest presentation over the years, and fascinating to see just how little change is required to transform the way a player views the world through the questing lens, where slight adjustments to structure can alter the focus of a player’s attentions, blurring the boundary between mechanisms and mind-set, while throwing the game’s world into sharper relief.

A noble craft, and also a most lively!

One of the nifty![TM] features I’ve experienced in a couple of recent MMOs is the inclusion of crafting in other aspects of the game, outside of merely producing five million worthless trinkets to be sold to a vendor, before being able to finally produce the epic quality Toe Ring of Time, which gives your character a best-in-slot 0.01% boost in DPS over anything you can acquire in the levelling game, which nobody will ever be aware of, and which will be replaced by the first piece of end-game dungeon loot that drops.

The first of these is within Star Wars: The Old Republic. Crafting skills in SWTOR can be used to bypass areas of the game’s instanced dungeons – flashpoints. I love the idea of this, the fact that being a crafter of a certain type actually means something. What I particularly liked was that access to a shortcut or bonus area was themed towards the type of crafter who could negotiate that access. A set of tunnels which take the players around several corridors of heavily armed guards might be filled with a poisonous gas, and thus a Biochem specialist would be required to repair the filtration system which would neutralise the obstacle; someone versed in Cybertech might be able to reactivate a facility’s sentry droids, turning them against the mobstacles that litter the paths through the instance. It’s not essential to have a crafter of a certain type along, all the crafting activated events are usually bonuses and shortcuts which make the job easier, and not requisites for successfully completing the instance. I think BioWare struck a nice balance between players getting a bonus for having a certain crafting class, without it being compulsory to ‘bring along a crafter’. M’colleague informs me that, alas, this design featured less heavily in the later flashpoints he experienced.

It was whilst playing TERA that I was reminded of SWTOR’s subtle mechanic for craftily encouraging crafting. In TERA, each crafting node will grant a modest buff when harvested. It seems that these buffs are random, or perhaps tied to the type of node harvested, but by gathering from a number of nodes you can quickly find yourself with a considerable stack of buffs, which although modest in their own right, can result in quite a boost to your combat prowess when their effects are combined. I like this system better than that provided in World of Warcraft, where the gathering profession itself gives you a permanent boost to a stat, or a utility ability, because WoW’s system just becomes another item on the Great Min-Max List (‘Has optimal gathering profession to boost combat prowess?’), whereas TERA’s system temporarily rewards you for the act of gathering itself; for crafters or auction house wranglers this is a non-issue, but for everyone else there’s now a reason to get involved in gathering, and hey, if you have all those crafting materials in your inventory, why not try putting something together? Incidental crafting –which may in turn lead a player to discover a deeper love of crafting than they would have otherwise imagined– is a nice side benefit of such a system.

I really like this blending of boundaries, where consideration is given to the fact that gathering from crafting nodes doesn’t have to exclusively produce materials for crafting, and where crafting doesn’t have to correspond purely to churning out equipment. It draws those mechanics into the main combat-driven system, smudges the edges, blurs the demarcations, but does so by giving modest bonuses to those players who gave it a try, not by punishing those who didn’t.

I’d certainly like to see more features like these in future MMOs, because I feel that it’s very much this sort of parallel design that helps to make a game feel like a world, rather than a series of independent mechanical systems.

Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes

Along with the big 1.2 game update Bioware have reactivated accounts for former Star Wars: The Old Republic subscribers for a week, so I’ve popped a nose back in for a bit of a look around. I had been slightly miffed at missing out on a free month of subscription; active users with a level 50 character on April 12th got an extra 30 days of game time, and I would’ve strongly considered resubscribing to qualify but only found out on April 13th. Since a bit of unhappiness, not least from people without a level 50 character, they’ve tweaked the offer slightly to also cover people who’ve reached Legacy Level 6 across multiple characters, and you qualify if you have an active sub on April 22nd, so I’ll probably dig out the credit card after the free week for a bit more dabbling.

Picking up a couple of Melmoth’s links from yesterday, Richard Bartle talked about the lack of story-focused content in 1.2. The Legacy system does give an incentive for playing different characters, and a levelling boost for alts makes some sense in allowing you to focus on the class missions and perhaps skip some of the content seen on previous characters. Overall, though, individual character-specific stories don’t seem to have changed or advanced since launch.

I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing; I posted about the disconnect between individual stories and the wider game world, something thrown into sharper relief when jumping from SWTOR to Mass Effect 3, and 1.2 turned out to have a secret payload…

While idly browsing the Galactic Trade Space-Auction-House Network, safely tucked away in the heart of the Imperial Fleet, I dropped dead. “That’s a bit strange” I thought, displaying the incredible perception of the Empire’s most astute Agent. I commenced an investigation at once, drawing upon my full reserves of cunning, interrogation techniques and psychological mastery to ask “WTF??/?” in /guild chat. It turned out that I’d contracted the rakghoul plague (as I would’ve noticed, if I wasn’t so fixated on the trade network screens), some NPC chatter and in-game news bulletins started to shed a bit of light on the situation. Spinks and Shintar have fine posts about the event, as Spinks says it’s nicely done, all very organic within the world: “None of this, incidentally, is delivered via quest text from an NPC with a quest symbol above its head.”

I’m not sure if it’s a pointer towards a shift in focus from character-oriented stories to a more world-based narrative, or just the way the updates have fallen, but it’s a pretty interesting event so far. Now if you’ll excuse me I just need to go and rub up against some other infected Imperials at the Giant Rakghoul Plague Party in the cantina…

Life is ten percent what happens to you and ninety percent how you respond to it.

You have to wonder if the team behind Star Wars: The Old Republic is getting a bit desperate.

First the controversial-to-some promotion of gifting players with level capped characters free subscription time.

Now there’s a live event which, to this outsider, seems suspiciously similar to a well-known bugged event in World of Warcraft. I mean, I know that BioWare seem to be throwing story to the wind and pasting in more end game raid content, but do they really need to copy World of Warcraft’s bugs too? Or maybe they consider this one to be a feature.

In all fairness (and slightly more seriousness), the event seems to be quite the hit with many SWTOR players, so I guess it’s not entirely a bad move to replicate some of the more notorious events from the Disney of theme park MMOs, while placing them in a more controlled environment.

What I want to know is, are they trying to respond to the Mists of Pandaria beta by appealing to World of Warcraft players, or the ‘pre-players’ of Guild Wars 2’s rather successful recent pre-post-pre-order-purchase activation, or both?

Certainly, to my mind, they seem to be desperately scrambling to respond to something, I’m just curious as to what that something is, and why they feel the need to respond so soon in their game’s life.

Terry you slag you nicked the leg of time, give it back before you get a slap

This post for has been classified as Spoiler Free for Mass Effect 3 by the British Board of Blog Certification, but may include light spoiling of Mass Effect 1 or 2, early Star Wars: The Old Republic flashpoints, Dragon Age: Origins and the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (spoiler: he eats his shoe).

As widely observed by, to pluck some random examples, Kieron Gillen, Penny Arcade, Melmoth of this parish and Vic Sandman in the comments, the narrative personalisation of the Mass Effect series is rather impressive. The decisions of each player affect their own observable universe, and each instance of the game forms a separate strand of a Mass Effect multiverse in which other characters may be alive or dead, friend or foe, comrade or lover. Every time Shepard dies you take a peek down a different leg of the trousers of time where you fail to save the galaxy before quickloading back onto the right track.

It’s something I posted about before in Dragon Age: Origins, the way that a fundamental story can be the same for everyone at a very broad level (go to planet/village A, planet/village B, defeat The Big Evil, save the galaxy/world), and yet completely different in details. It’s something Bioware do rather well in their single players games, especially the way Mass Effect choices continue to ripple through the sequels, but it slightly unravels when transferred to a massively multiplayer setting in Star Wars: The Old Republic.

During the first Imperial flashpoint in SWTOR, Black Talon, the Captain of the titular ship refuses an order, and your party can either give him a stern talking to (“Now look here, Captain old thing, I’m awfully sorry but we’re really going to have to insist”) or, if taking a more Sith-like approach, kill him (“The penalty for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for the rest of the crew for not killing the captain for disobeying an order is DEATH! The penalty for not bringing me a nice cup of tea is also DEATH! Now I come to think of it, the official Sith ‘Book of Penalties’ is just one page with ‘DEATH’ written on it…”) In a single player game this might crop up again later; perhaps you’d bump in the Captain on another planet and he’d be grateful that you spared him, while down the other leg of the trousers of time another player would meet the First Officer who’d taken over after his Captain had been demoted in a mysterious lightsabre-based industrial accident. In the shared universe of a MMOG both things happened, Schrödinger’s Captain is both alive and dead depending on who you talk to. Chat with someone who’s done the flashpoint a few times and it’s even more confusing:
“Oh, you’ve done the Black Talon, did you spare the Captain or kill him?”
“The first time, we spared him. Second time, we killed him. Third time I wanted to spare him, but got outvoted. Fourth and fifth times we were after the loot from the Republic group that spawns in if you spare him, then sixth through ninth was speed runs for social points so we killed him.”

Much of the narrative is experienced through the class-specific story missions, and these at least aren’t repeatable so make events more definitive per player, but you’re still sharing the world with other players who may have made different choices. I don’t think any of your SWTOR companions can die; if they could, the emotional impact would be lessened by seeing other versions of them accompanying other players around the world. Things are even more confusing across factions, as Spinks mentioned, due to visiting planets at different points in their timelines (or possibly alternate versions of them), rendering it all a big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.

The class stories of SWTOR do work, but it doesn’t feel like they naturally mesh with the multiplayer elements of the game, the flashpoints and warzones and operations. It’s almost like playing two different characters, in the same way that you don’t take your Shepard into the multiplayer component of Mass Effect 3. I wrapped up my Imperial Agent’s story and it was interesting enough, albeit with a slightly anticlimactic final confrontation with my nemesis (perhaps it was unfair to have been kitted out with gear from a few operations and quite a bit of end game PvP), but it never felt as personal as Mass Effect or Dragon Age. Like I mentioned I actually got into a bit of raiding in SWTOR, something I’ve hardly done before, and that had less than nothing to do with story; there’s probably some deep backstory about how The Infernal One ended up in The Eternity Vault and why he’s a Bad Person, but the Imperial briefing might as well be “There are dudes. They have loot. GO!” It’s probably best not to try and construct a narrative imperative to explain why this needs to happen twice a week and again at the weekend, the attraction is the prospect of loot, and the cameraderie of the guild who are a great bunch. I’d been meaning to keep dabbling in both SWTOR and ME3 but I’ve hardly logged in to the former since the latter arrived; it doesn’t feel like I’ve completely lost touch with the SWTOR guild, though, with forums, Twitter and blogs, so hopefully they won’t be too put out if I return at some point.

So as Gillen also tweeted “The silver lining to the ME3 ending debate: it shows the “who plays games for story?” position to be complete bullshit.”, but I don’t think a developer-driven story will be a vital pillar of MMOGs until they’re running on quantum servers.

Hope is generally a wrong guide, though it is good company along the way

I tweeted the other day about patching both SWTOR and STO while Total War: Shogun 2 was installing, and a couple of my dedicated followers (lovely young ladies, judging by their definitely not stolen profile pictures) were kind enough to suggest a link to something that had been really helpful for them in Star Wars: The Old Republic. The fact that their tweets were identical was obviously just proof of the old adage about great minds thinking alike, rather than confirmation that a pair of randomly named accounts tweeting heavily obfuscated links were spambots picking up on any mention of SWTOR.

Being at something of a loose end I thought I’d take a look at what they were promoting. Convincing though the heartfelt endorsements were, I still took basic security precautions and slathered the keyboard with gin, drank a couple of shots of antibacterial hand sanitiser and donned a welding mask to foil the hackers who take control of your webcam then stare into your eyes to read your mind and steal passwords (I originally tried not knowing any of my passwords so the mind reading wouldn’t work, but there was a slight flaw with that system. After that I trained a hamster to randomly generate and memorise a password so to access a game or site I just had to command “Boo! Enter Dungeons and Dragons Online password!”, but I had to abandon that system as the week after creating a home shopping account with Sainsburys a mysterious order was placed for 700 bags of peanuts.)

Sure enough, three or four redirections later, the links led to a SWTOR levelling guide making all manner of AMAZING promises. Now it may be that it really is a fantastic resource and the myriad tweets are from genuine fans, but it seems a smidge more likely to be a scuzzy operation employing spammers. Much like a seedy Gentleman’s Specialist Interest venue, if you were seduced by the gaudy neon and alluring posters into paying the steep price of admission you’d probably find a couple of bored looking women in their underwear handing out information that could be gleaned from game forums with a bit of searching.

A levelling guide seems especially superfluous for SWTOR as I can’t think of a smoother levelling experience in any other MMOG, especially at launch. No extended grinding, no desolate zones with occasional token kill-quests, no “hell levels”. Sidestepping for a moment the question of whether a smooth, guided levelling experience is a Good Thing or Symptomatic of the Decline of Western Civilisation, most MMOGs have needed patches, expansions and/or major zone revamps to knock off the rough edges of launch and fill in the gaps labelled “ADD CONTENT HERE”. If you follow the story quests of your class in SWTOR you can hardly go wrong, and though they alone aren’t enough to get you to the cap you can also pick up solo or group (heroic) quests in the same zones, you can run flashpoints (instances) from the main fleet, participate in PvP or fly space missions, all of which net further XP; a levelling guide (or two minutes on the forums) could probably point out which is the most efficient, but if making a bar go up is your *only* goal, regardless of the mechanism, why not buy a pack of felt-tips and some graph paper and knock yourself out? It’ll be much cheaper.

The man in the coon-skin cap by the big pen wants eleven dollar bills, you only got ten

Reading about the $870 worth of Mass Effect 3 DLC, I can’t help but think Bioware have missed a trick for Star Wars The Old Republic. Most of the ME3 cost comes from assorted toys, accessories and hardware peripherals that include DLC unlock codes – a mere £70 will get you a nylon bag with a code for an in-game assault rifle, a promotion much less controversial than an earlier plan to offer an AK-47 for £70 with a code that would unlock an in-game bag for additional inventory space (gamers were absolutely outraged that they’d have to clutter up their bedroom with piles of weaponry just to carry around more loot in the game).

For SWTOR there’s the Collector’s Edition with the high-quality action figurine character replica statuette (definitely not a doll), but I haven’t seen much other tie-in merchandise; I imagine this is due to the Star Wars IP, as George Lucas is notorious for his maniacal preservation of the artistic purity and integrity of his vision. Nevertheless there’s an opportunity for some classy, tasteful merchandise, not only from Bioware but all MMOG publishers, if they take a leaf from sports so that when a character reaches the in-game level cap the player has an opportunity to buy an actual physical cap. It could be embroidered with a classy, tasteful alphanumeric string that would unlock an in-game equivalent, so both player and character could sport the fetching headgear on the team bus back from the final mission, belting out a song over Ventrilo…

All right, maybe not. Unfortunately there’s not much else for me to look forward to having hit level 50 in SWTOR. The main problem is the PvP warzones that I’ve been participating in nigh-daily; just as Moridir observed in a previous comment, up to level 49 the boosting algorithms seem to work quite well to give a fairly level playing field. Lower levels are at a disadvantage, not having their full range of skills, but apart from that can still effectively contribute. A fresh level 50 is chucked into a pool that includes people who’ve been grinding gear for two months, and the potential power differential is vast. Without getting back into the age-old “gear vs skill” debate there’s not much incentive to hop onto the upgrade treadmill, slogging through tier after tier of gear, with little to look forward to apart from finding someone in inferior gear to dish out a kicking to, even the momentary pleasure of unleashing pent-up frustration denied by the self-knowledge that you’re just perpetuating the cycle.

I popped down to Ilum, the open world PvP zone, joined up with an ops group, and spent half an hour edging slightly forwards, then edging slightly backwards; massed combat in SWTOR isn’t much different to massed combat in WoW or WAR, or most other MMOGs I imagine, packs of players shuffling around, AoE heals generally countering AoE damage, and occasional stragglers being picked off; stray too far forward and a “yoink” ability pulls you into the middle of the enemy pack for instant death, but hang around in the middle of the pack and you’re probably safe. With roughly balanced forces it’s a cagey stalemate, which is at least a marginal improvement over a massacre followed by one side giving up.

There’s still the story, of course. I haven’t wrapped that up yet and I’m quite intrigued to see how it all pans out, but it hasn’t hooked me so much that I’m desperate to finish it. Interspersing the story with general planetary missions, flashpoints, warzones and the like has made it feel very fragmentary, my own doing, but an inevitable consequence of developer-driven narrative within a MMOG. That’s not the only factor; single player games have a much better chance of digging their story hooks in and The Witcher 2 didn’t manage it either, it’s been kicking around my Steam library somewhere near the start of Act 2 for months and I’m not sure I’ll go back, but the story alone wouldn’t keep me in SWTOR. That there are seven more stories to experience is a temptation to play other characters, and I’ve dabbled with several, but I’ve never really been one for alts. I might well come back for another stint in the future, probably playing a Republic Trooper (tried a couple of Jedi for a few levels and they were insufferably smug, and it’d be nice to have a different play style from the Agent, plus the female Trooper is voiced by Jennifer Hale); pottering about having a look at the first Republic flashpoint and seeing warzones from the other side has been fun, but not that different.

If ever there was a box I wouldn’t tick in the “What are you most looking forward to about Game X?” section of a questionnaire, it would be the one labelled “Raiding”. Unless there was another one labelled “The complete absence of hats”. Or “The fascinating socio-political debates in /general”. Anyway, I’ve never been serious a raider, had no great desire to participate in eight man SWTOR operations like the Eternity Vault, but the afternoon after I hit 50 the guild had a run planned, I had a couple of spare hours, and it turned out to be rather fun. Plenty of clustering up and running away and hopping over stepping stones and pushing buttons, shepherded by our chilled raid leader with some assistance from a more hardcore raider we grabbed from general chat to round the team out (who was good enough to only point out how simple an encounter was after a couple of wipes; I like to think what we lacked in cohesion and gear we made up for with enthusiasm and charm, like excitable puppies at an obedience class just about getting the hang of “sit”, briefly). I was only personally responsible for one failed encounter (as far as I remember, losing a DPS race when we split into eight separate one-on-one encounters; slowly chipping down a tank-ier mob worked better) and got a couple of purple gear upgrades out of it, happy days.

It’s been a good run and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, but the time’s come to hang up SWTOR for a while, especially with Mass Effect 3 imminent. While the subscription ticks down I wouldn’t mind taking another look at Eternity Vault or Karagga’s Palace; I don’t think I’ll be becoming a regular raider, but it’s a lot more attractive than warzones at the moment.

If you’ve heard this story before don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again

A couple of years before release, when we were getting the first glimpses of group conversations in Star Wars: The Old Republic, there was a bit of scepticism over how the Super Happy Mass Effect Conversation Wheel of Alignment Sparkle Time Fun (© Melmoth) would work with multiple players. At the time I didn’t think it was something that would translate well to a MMOG environment, but the first flashpoints (SWTOR dungeons/instances) really have that Bioware-RPG feeling for a group of players.

The Esseles and Black Talon flashpoints have a short introduction, a couple of conversations where each member of the group picks a response (a dice roll determines the response that’s used, with some sort of modifiers making sure everyone gets a chance to speak at some stage) and plenty of fairly standard MMOG action (clearing corridors of “trash” mobs, the odd boss here and there with shiny loot). At three or four points during the flashpoint there are more conversations, with decisions to take that affect how things play out, a nice set piece or two, a climactic confrontation, then home for tea and medals. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, taking the standard Bioware formula, adding another three players and sprinkling with MMOG-ness, but as with the proverbial swan it doubtless takes a lot of furious paddling below the surface to appear so effortless.

This week’s Star Trek Online expedition demonstrated a slightly less graceful implementation of story-driven group play, more of a thrashing sort-of-butterly stroke. Since the game went free-to-play, group nights have mostly been spent on “Feature Episodes”, linked missions that tell a story, at one point released on a weekly basis. I have to confess I haven’t entirely been paying attention to the exposition text from NPCs, I think there was an ambassador involved somewhere at the start, and probably some Klingons or something. I seem to recall a group of starship captains, each commanding a crew of hundreds and enough firepower to take decent sized chunks out of a planet, were responsible for a health & safety inspection in a night club at one point, but that might’ve just been a cheese-fuelled dream. Anyway, the specifics haven’t been terribly important as the missions generally boil down to entertaining bouts of Kirk-style diplomacy delivered with fists and photon torpedoes. We don’t stack Ferrero Rocher into a pyramid, we replace the hazelnut with antimatter and launch a full spread of them at anything that looks at us funny.

This week there was a newly released episode focusing on Deep Space Nine, so we toddled along to have a look at that. (Danger: the following contains vaguely remembered possible spoilers for that episode.) There’s a very important conference going on, and you’re sent to… all right, to be honest, I was mostly skipping the text again. Some missions have voiceover text, I think this latest Feature Episode includes it throughout, but it’s not really up to Bioware standards. Where SWTOR delivers brief, punchy, well-voiced cutscenes, STO shoves a dense block of text up in an oh-so-closable window. If you were sitting around a table playing a board game or RPG with others, handing out a short pamphlet and telling everyone to read it wouldn’t really be compelling gameplay, it doesn’t work well for an online group either. From what I could gather, in the best MMOG traditions the first part of the mission was to undertake some trivial tasks from some NPCs too lazy to walk around themselves: get some bootleg liquor, act as a virtual pimp and hoover someone’s starship. Our first instinct, “What would Kirk do?”, had to be abandoned when it proved impossible to either punch or snog our way to success, so we tried “What would Picard do?” After a very well received off-Broadway production of Brecht’s Badener Lehrstück vom Einverständnis we decided that wasn’t getting us anywhere either, and tried “What would Sisko do?” I was unsure of what this entailed, having only watched a few episodes of Deep Space Nine, but following the lead of our Trekkie/er/ist leader it seemed to be running around and clicking on anyone with something floating over their head.

Aside from the fact that this wouldn’t have been vastly compelling group content at the best of times, our elite away team instantly activated Plan Sperple and spread out across the station, randomly clicking on anything that looked clickable. It wasn’t clear if we were all supposed to talk to NPCs in turn, or if just one of us had to talk to them, or we were all supposed to talk to them simultaneously, or some mix of all of the above; we managed to render two of the optional goals uncompletable, either by speaking to the wrong people at the wrong time, or selecting the wrong dialogue option, or just giving the game a headache, we’re not really sure. Still, we managed the key objectives to move the mission forward, and got to participate in the pan-galactic conference of great importance. Instructed to take seats, we naturally jumped on top of the table as per the time honoured sport of “try and place your character in a ridiculous pose for the cutscene”, but sadly (as in SWTOR) the game forces your characters to preordained locations. A bunch of alien dudes with weird foreheads then droned unskippably on for a bit; those more in to Star Trek may have had more of an idea who they were, I can just about remember Klingons, though they seemed to be represented by a lizard-thing… Shockingly the delegates reached an impasse, so it was down to the Federation’s finest diplomats to sort things out! Unfortunately they weren’t available, so it fell to us instead, and once again we ran around the room frantically clicking on anyone clickable. This was surprisingly successful, though I have no idea what we said to anyone, we probably made completely contradictory promises that will lead to a galaxy-shattering war in the future, but it got us out of the conference room.

Finally, the action kicked in; the station was attacked! Much vworping of sirens and wobbling of the camera to simulate phaser hits. We had to escort the ambassadors to their shuttles, fighting through units of Some Bad Aliens in ground combat; despite a couple of overhauls ground combat is still a bit ropey in STO (much like Pirates of the Burning Sea), but at least it was more involving for the group. On reaching the shuttle bays, we then beamed up to our ships to ensure their escape, and that’s when the game really came into its own, space combat on a grand scale, waves of enemy ships, friendly Federation ships giving support, protecting the shuttles as they made their escape. It took a while to get going, but at least there was a strong finish.

In a world of identikit “use hotbar ability to cause damage” combat-heavy MMOGs, Cryptic at least make an effort to broaden the game content in keeping with the source material, and the first part of the mission would probably work quite well solo, especially for someone more into Deep Space Nine. Tipa has a far better write-up from the perspective of someone who actually has a clue about both STO and the Star Trek universe in general, reaching a similar conclusion. I think, with sufficient resources chucked at it, the STO episode could’ve worked well in the SWTOR engine, structuring the mission to keep the group together, increasing the interactivity of conversations, perhaps adding in bridge crew as more fleshed-out NPCs if not in a full group of human players, but such resources are probably prohibitive, especially if trying to get Feature Episodes out on a more frequent basis.

Even SWTOR seemed to run out of steam somewhat after the first flashpoint for each faction. Subsequent flashpoints have been far more linear without much of a story driving them. It’s hardly unusual for the best content in MMOGs to be front-loaded at launch with later gaps left to be grouted over in future updates; mid-level City of Heroes task forces featuring series of missions on similar maps against identical enemies, Lord of the Rings Online at launch when the fun of the Shire gave way to the desolate Lone-lands and attendant boar-grinding, post-Tortage Age of ConanSWTOR has more than sufficient content across two factions and eight classes for getting to the level cap, so subsequent flashpoints not living up to the high standards of the first is hardly the most heinous crime; it’ll be interesting to see if future updates bring more story-heavy branching flashpoints, or whether more repeatable content is seen as a better investment. Though Esseles and Black Talon have some replay value to see how the different branches pan out, story isn’t something that’ll keep players coming back twice a week like the chance of a loot drop from some big boss. From that perspective, story just gets in the way; I’m sure there are guides aplenty with loot tables and detailed instructions of which choices to make for optimal completion of Black Talon to allow displays of precision synchronised flashpoint-running from the Derbyshire Light Infantry:
“Squad! Atten-TION! By the left, quick MARCH! And HALT two three, click two three, space-skip space-skip select first reply two three, space-skip, space-skip space-skip select second reply two three, left TURN! Quick MARCH! Perkins, you ‘orrible little man, are you LISTENING to that NPC? You’re up on a charge!”

It’ll also be interesting to try the multiplayer features of Mass Effect 3. Star Wars: The Old Republic may turn out to be a little like Concorde, the ultimate development of story-heavy MMOGs, a fantastic achievement, but a bit of an evolutionary dead end that nobody can really afford to emulate (apart from a Soviet knock-off with a dubious safety record…) If multiplayer ME3 gives that same flashpoint-type experience with no subscription and the possibility of introducing new content as DLC, available on consoles as well, that could be a more sustainable model for the future.

Second hand point of view from the second hand news

Spinks was talking about the problems of role-centric gear, something I’m having a bit of an issue with in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Not so much for my character, being a Sniper I only have the “Shooting People In The Face A Lot” role, more my companions. They require their own full sets of weapons, armour, earpieces, implants, heated towel rails etc. It was fairly straightforward at first when I was just accompanied by Kaliyo, especially as some missions offer companion-specific armour as a reward. Indeed it was quite nice to be able to use twice the number of random drops as normal, kitting her out in any suitable heavy armour that turned up (so long as it was aesthetically pleasing enough, of course). I’d look out choice bargains on the galactic trade network for both of us, put the armstech crafting skill to good use for weaponry, sometimes even give her some nice orange gear from planetary commendations if I was already well kitted up with heroic rewards or PvP stuff.

As your crew grows, though, so do their armouring requirements, and at higher levels it became more of an effort to keep myself in decent gear let alone everyone else. The sensible thing is probably to just use one companion and ignore the others, but it seems a bit of a waste (and strangely familiar) to always leave some of your team moping about the ship in their starting gear. Missions continue to offer upgrade options on occasion, but when you have a choice of six pairs of companion-specific boots it can be a bit of a struggle remembering what everyone is currently wearing and whether you care enough to get them some new stuff (not that they ever appreciate it; you’d think a flash pair of boots with vastly improved stats would net some Affection points, but nooo, they just want random bits of tat, the ingrates). Loot drops can still be helpful, but it seems that 82.6% of the armour I’ve found in the game is +Strength stuff, useless for any of my crew (I admit there might be some “other queue always moves faster”-type selective observation going on there).

Kaliyo remains my favourite companion personality-wise, we have a similar attitude to authority even if mine is generally well-meaning irreverence and hers is more credit-driven sociopathy; we get on fine so long as the conversations stay away from the profit opportunities of selling the rest of the crew. Capability-wise, though, I’ve found a healing companion is more effective, and my preferred healer has the added advantage of using exactly the same type of armour as me. This makes the armour upgrade process considerably easier:

“Oooh, that’s decent looking leg armour, Mr Commendation Vendor, I’ll take a set.”
*vanishes behind a nearby rock; sound of a zipper*
“Snazzy! Oh, hey Doc! Got an upgraded pair of trousers for you! Yeah, they’re still a bit warm, don’t worry about that…”

He must feel like a younger brother, always stuck with the cast-offs that don’t quite fit properly. Still, he should probably be grateful he isn’t in my Star Trek Online crew; armour is universal in that game, so when I get an upgrade for my Captain he passes his previous gear to the First Officer, who passes her gear to the primary Tactical Officer of the away team, who passes her gear to the Chief Science Officer, who passes his gear to the secondary Tactical Officer… by the time the tertiary Engineering Officer gets anything it’s about eighth hand. You have to hope that the 25th century laundry service is really good at getting out those ground-in stains…