SWTOR – Shadow Musings

I’ve loved stealth classes for a long time.  They work in excellent form for quick combat, but generally get weaker as the combat duration lengthens.  In WoW, Monks have pretty much replaced Rogues in that respect.  But it’s hard to ignore their benefit of group stealth for time-based challenges.

In my Republic playthrough, my current character is a Jedi Shadow.  By level 25, aside from a stealth button, there really isn’t much there that screams “I’m a shadow ninja and you can’t see me.”  I’d have to triple check when my toolkit from stealth actually has a purpose other than bypassing groups of enemies.

I’ve just finished the Nar Shadaa / Taris grouping, then the tiny ship event that follows.  I’m chasing a Sith that is infecting Jedi with some sort of mental plague, turning them to the darkside.  My secret weapon, which I learned at level 5, is to take their illness for my own – sucking the poison as it were.  I finally found the Sith, and now to chase him…

This is an odd storyline.  Why in the world would the Jedi Council assign one of the largest threats to its existence to an initiate?  When  you’re already short staffed and someone is poaching your team, I think that merits more than the rookie’s attention.

The story beats are all similar too.  Each planet you find a Jedi turned dark, complete some quests to finally meet them, then use the shield ability to cure them.  Feels like I’m a doctor running around giving vaccines.  Aside from the very final part (in the ship), there’s no tangible progress.  If I recall, that is a point for quite a few of the Act 1 class stories, yet in this case it seems really apparent.

I generally liked my companions on the Empire side.  Sure, some annoying ones but it worked.  Qyzen is the whole honorable warrior shtick.  It completely conflicts with the light side Jedi options though.  Tharan Cedrax is meh.  His own companion, Holiday, is where it’s at.  There’s something about the exploration of AI in the Star Wars universe that’s always been interesting.  The whole Iokath/SCORPIO line is where it’s at for me.

I still maintain that the leveling experience is jarring compared to later content.  Planets are large swaths of nothing, with the hub/spoke model that has side quests that are not at all near where your main quest points you.  I’m sure I spend 75% of my time on my mount getting from A to B.  If not for investment in Legacy Quick Travel, the trip from B back to A would be all the more annoying.  It’s more of a gripe though, since I’m able to clear an entire planet’s quest (class & planet) in about 90 minutes.

I’ve thought about doing multiple classes at the same time, enough to allow rested XP to get me to 50.  Good news there is that since every planet scales to my level, that’s not needed.  So off to Tatooine I go.

 

Phoenix Point Quick Impressions

XCOM of attrition.

I rather enjoy the tactical/strategy squad genre.  I played the heck out of the original XCOM (even wrote my own mouse driver for it).  I’ve played every iteration since.  JAG was decent enough.  Syndicate is a top 20 all time game.  There are a half dozen in that vein every year that seem to pop up.  Sattelite Reign was a recent one.  Hard West.  Phoenix Point is a bit different, in that it’s designed by the same guy that made the first XCOM.  And hooo boy does that show throughout.  Couple thoughts after a few missions.

  • Squads?  Check
  • Alien bay guys?  Check
  • Research & manufacturing?  Check
  • Geoscape? Check
  • Factions?  Check
  • Action points in tactical mode? Check
  • Classes?  Check

The foundational parts are all there, it’s a relatively familiar system.  What Phoenix Point (PP) does differently is apply the concept of time management to equation.  One effective strategy in XCOM is to take a more defensive approach to combat, primarily due to the rather low hit points, and extremely long periods of recovery after damage.  Losing a top-end Sniper for a couple weeks due to really bad luck rolls was super painful.

PP instead puts the clock front and center for a lot of actions.  You need to collect material to build things, and you get more material if you finish a mission quickly.  You are presented with multiple attack choices at the same time, but never really enough soldiers to complete them all on time.   There will be times when you simply run out of ammo.

PP also adds a fair chunk of hit points to every enemy, so that it takes 3-4 attacks to take out even the lowly grunts.  Rather than throw a half dozen enemies at you, there are less of them, but they last longer.  The net effect is that each map is the same time duration, but there’s always something going on, and usually more than 1 active target.

Free Aiming

Everyone has missed a point blank shot in XCOM.  It’s absolutely infuriating when it happens, and often at a key point in battle.  Hip shots still exist in PP, but it also adds a Free Aim mode, which is a much more realistic combat mechanic.

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Dead to sights

In most cases, you can bring up your sights and find 2 concentric circles to assist with aiming.  There’s a 100% chance of it hitting the outer circle and 50% chance of the inner one.  As you get closer or farther from the target (or swap guns) the circles change in size.    Picking a part of the enemy has differing effects.  Maybe it disables an attack, maybe it restricts movement.  For some shielded enemies, maybe you can get by the shield and hit an exposed part.  Or perhaps you just want to take out the wall of the building to get a better shot next time… that works too.

This customized shooting makes a tremendous difference in combat.  XCOM sometimes felt like Excel with graphics, just a pretty pain on top of a number crunching machine.  PP says enough with that, and puts a lot of control in the player’s hand.  Yet with that control comes a suprising amount of challenge.  If you aren’t attacking the right enemies, what seems like a sure win can easily turn into a loss.

It will take some time to come to terms with PP.  There’s a lot to unpack here, and it’s going to take some time to get through it all.  From what I’ve seen so far, it should be a fun ride.

Exploration vs Achievement

At work, we’ve gone through psych profiles (NOVA, Insight, Myers-Briggs), and for a long time I’ve been super dominant in one aspect.  I am not a cheerleader, I am a trailblazer.  I see broken things, I want to fix them and find more broken things.  We have an annual review of these profiles, and that allows any new staff to better understand the drivers of teammates.  Which then makes for much more pleasant conversations where both people are aiming for common ground.

There are analogies to gaming.  Bartle posits a 4 quadrant player profile, including Social, Killer, Explorer, Acheiver.  Everyone has a bit of each profile within themselves, though there are certainly dominant aspects.  In that space, I am strong in the Achievement section, with some exploration bits included.  I have next to no drive for the Killer persona, and the Social one is fairly weak as well.  In both of those cases, people will play shitty games because either they are dominating other people, or the other people are the reason to log on.  Generally speaking, an FPS is much more about the Killer model, and an old-school MMO (UO, EQ, WoW Classic)  is more about the social aspect.

I tend to strike more in the Exploration & Achievement sections.  Not in the absolute sense of finding every nook and cranny, and the obscure/grindable achievements though.  Both of those have very long tails.  I have little interest in ever getting a 100% complete, or a Platinum only to have a badge show up.  Now, if content is gated behind the activity, then sure, it’s a tad more interesting.  Things like FFX’s Monster Arena is a good example, and WoW’s pet menagerie is a bad example.

When I “finished” Jedi: Fallen Order, the rest of the game was about unlocking new cosmetics.  Meh.  No real interest.  Outer Worlds I had done nearly all the quests and explored all the zones, but only in the context of playing a specific character build.  To get “more” content, I’d need to restart with a different build.  I’m giving myself time to forget my first playthrough to make it more enjoyable the next time.

SWTOR is in an interesting spot.  There’s piles of content I missed (the near entirey of the Republic 1-50 storylines), so there’s a fair chunk there to face through.  I don’t have much interest in the end-game.  There was a time that I used to.  I raided a lot in early WoW.  I was runing dungeons a-plenty until WoD.  WoD’s implementation made me reconsider my gaming choices, and that meant looking at my gaming catalogue.  Instead of spending a few hours dungeoneering for extra gear, I would rather play something like Shadow of Mordor, or Slay the Spire.  I get why people would commit to a single game, and the social bonds therein.  But I’m good with having to go through 5-6 other GotY candidates instead.

Reviewing what I have left on deck game-wise, that leaves:

  • SWTOR Republic class quests to 50.  Maybe, just maybe, get one of them out to Onslaught.
  • Warframe. Not much more do to here until I get a Platinum coupon, allowing for a much larger inventory.  There’s a post here about online pricing…the coupon is the actual price.  Everything else feels like a penalty.
  • Phoenix Point.  The XCOM successor of sorts from Julian Gollop who created the series.  I don’t expect it to be at the same level as XCOM2 at launch, but then again XCOM2 took it to another level with War of the Chosen (DLC) and the Long War (mod).

Diablo 4 – Itemization

Part 2 of the dev watercooler discussions is up, and it deals with thoughts on itemization.  Since ARPGs are typically driven by the desire for better items, it’s worth a read.  First though, some history.

Diablo 2’s character power structure was a combination of items and skills.  The point investments in skills has a generally larger impact on gameplay than items did, yet there was still a lot of value in grinding for that perfect drop.  I won’t even get into the insanity of Runes.

Diablo 3’s character power is entirely driven by items, and the scale of randomness on rolls made some drops “god tier”.  Legendary items were eventually buffed to apply skill bonuses that impacted gameplay, and some bad luck protection with Kunai’s Cube.

Diablo 4 appears to be aiming more towards D2’s model, with skill point investment and items making up the power levels.  They are planning to eliminate the RNG on top of RNG (Ancient drops) from D3, yet still maintain some element of greater power structure.

The addition of horizontal stats to grant additional skills is an interesting touch.  Get 50 Demonic Power total across all items and get +2 Fireball sounds interesting.  Clearly they want to keep the zero DPS (ZPDS) support roles as viable, and there’s some diversity here in the choice between +proc and +damage.  Balancing those two seems a near impossible task mind you.

There’s also some drive to make rare (yellow) items viable, by having a random drop provide legendary affixes to non-legendary items.  Which, I guess is ok.  But that would require the difference between Rare and Legendary items to only be affixes.  If they have the same stat ranges, then this is reasonable.  If legendaries can roll say 20% better stats, then this is a useless system.

I’ve made a point recently that added complexity does not necessarily make for more interesting gameplay.  There’s a benefit of doubt here since the D3 live team has done some solid work.

This does beg the question relating to player progression, which is still a bit mysterious to me.  I think I understand the intent, but the devil is certainly in the details.  I guess another month before more clarity is provided.

In the larger lens, these types of conversations show that D4 is long ways off.  These are not minor questions, they are the fundamental to the game.  The sort of questions that Anthem should have asked themselves and avoided a horribad launch.  So both a yay in the fact that D4 is taking the planning seriously, but also a oooh in that Path of Exile 2 is most definitely going to launch prior.  Should be an interesting 2021.

Life is Full of Plateaus

I’m in a reflective mood of late.  Usually happens when I’m overloaded and the brain simply turns inwards for some rest.

I was thinking back on the various games I’ve played this year, and while quite a few had actual endings, most of them had more stuff to show.  Yet I tend to move on from those games and with no real regrets.  I was asking myself why and came to the conclusion that I’d hit plateaus.

could have kept playing Jedi: Fallen Order and collected all the extra stims and cosmetics.  I could have completed every side quest in Outer Worlds.  Those are more achievements than actual content.  The parts I liked were closed, and I’m sure at some point I’ll give it another go.

The living games are a bit different.  Dauntless I went full in for a season pass, and took the next one off.  I’ve completed every single hunt, and the Beast Mastery system is an insane grind.  Drips and drops moving forward.  I’m more than content with the hammer, fists, swords, and guns as weapons.  I could learn pikes and axes, but I would need some serious crafting investment to make decent weapons.

Warframe is still there, but right now I’m simply looking for a 75% coupon for Plat to expand my inventory.  It’s like a buffet that never ends, and my ability to focus my goals is the real hurdle.  With Frost Prime and Soma Prime, I have one of the strongest setups.  Pretty much any other mix/match (for MR gains) is going to be a downgrade, or relearning.  I guess I should focus on getting all the nodes open for the first half dozen planets.

SWTOR I’ve done the main story quest for my dark side sorcerer.  Daily Onderon quests are there.  There’s at least 5 years of content that’s there for me to dip my toes into.  Plus the entire Legacy quests for the Republic side – on full opposite alts (e.g. Jedi Shadow).  I could run flashpoints til my eyes bleed for 306 gear, but then what?  I’m sure just regular bits will get me there eventually.  I am looking forward to the crew skill (crafting) update coming, cause woowee, is it ever a painful process currently.

 

I think this applies to a lot of stuff in my life.  I tend to go full speed until my main goals are achieved, never really striving for 100% but enough to consider myself a journeyman of sorts.  I’ll try things I absolutely have no interest in, a few times as well, and see if perhaps there’s something more to it.  Or, I’ll jump full to something I think looks really neat, only to see that the deep end is way deeper than I have time for.  Even at work, I generally only do one job for a couple years before I’ve learned everything I want to learn.  Not to say that I quit something, just that I’ve moved on to something else.

Hockey is a good example.  I’ve been playing since I was 5.  I’ve played all sorts of levels, and on a dozen+ teams as an adult.  If I don’t feel challenged, or that the team itself is “healthy”, I move on.  I took up coaching duties this year, and it’s certainly giving a different perspective on the sport.  Lots to learn, lots to share.

I still play games. That won’t end any time soon.  It’s just that the various goals I set for myself are achieved, even if there’s more to learn.  I hit my self-set plateau and choose to move on.

SWTOR – Time Travelling

By missing the middle part of SWTOR, I really missed out on the large changes in direction the game has taken over the years.  Sure, reading blogs helps keep somewhat up to date, but the details are generally glossed over.  I know Galactic Command was reviled, but without experiencing it, I can’t articulate exactly why.  Whereas I can at length and detail, describe why garrisons in WoW acted as a wrecking ball.

And to that point, SWTOR is a themepark MMO, and it’s judged in a similar vein.  How is the world built, how does the story flow through, are the classes interesting, does crafting have any merit, how many bears do I have to kill?  Each themepark takes a different approach to answering them, though in fairness SWTOR at launch tried to answer them by coping off WoW’s dev bible without understanding why.

I’ve gone over SWTOR at launch to a fair degree.  Bugs aside, it lacked a significant amount of social interaction, the worlds were open and empty, the classes lacked thoughtful design, and the game just ended at level 50.  Within a few months of launch, the game subs dropped by 90%, and the F2P model was applied (with absolute horrible mechanics).  Various attempts to salvage were applied, expansion packs and content at various degrees, and it’s in a relatively stable space today.  I’d argue in the west that SWTOR today is #3 after FF14 & WoW, though Daybreak may have a thing to say about that.  More to the point, dozens of MMORPGs have come and gone, and SWTOR is still kicking.  So ya to that!

Looking Forwards and Back

Having done the KOTFE/KOTET and the Onslaught storylines (or rather, the mandatory ones) I wanted to clean up some space in the legacy side.  I finished up my Sith Warrior’s storyline to get the entire Imperial story unlocked.  I also started up some Republic characters to see the starting areas once again.  Bear in mind, this is content that has never been retouched since launch (8 years ago!) and my mind is set in content that is current.  In WoW terms, that’s when Cataclysm launched and redid all the 1-60 zones.

The more recent SWTOR is focused, and designed with intent.  While Onderon may be a jungle planet, there are distinct areas to visit, and with a quick glance you can recognize your place.  Trainers are close by.  Transports are evenly distributed.  Quests follow a logical sense.

Compared to something like Corellia, where the zone is 4 times as big but has 10x less content.  Enemies are seemingly randomly placed, and the various objectives have you going to one corner, then another quite a distance away.  It’s like someone threw darts at a map on the wall.  Other planets aren’t much better.  Tython has you going through open spaces and over hills, plowing through raiders with no real rhyme or reason.  The world is artificially big, like it was padding for time.  Coruscant is a great example, in particular the sewer/power plant area which serves no actual purpose.  It’s just a wall of meat.

I can see the growth from KOTFE’s more linear structure through KOTET’s attempts are wider zones with clear paths.  The breadcrumbs throughout pull you along.  It feels like it respects your time more, with a narrower scope.  It forces you to do stuff rather than spend 75% of the time getting there and clicking an object, only to be told to go back to the starting point.

Always Forward

Every MMO hits a few crisis points along the way.  Some are caused by an individual, some by ignorance, some simply by accrual of bad bets.   FF14 took the trophy on that with the original launch, and since then has taken a very long term approach with every decision.  WoW looks only to the next expansion, and the lack of planning paints them into corners every so often.

I’m not sure how far SWTOR looks ahead.  I know KOTET was planned to be 2 expansions but due to feedback from KOTFE it was condensed to a single.  I would assume that episodic content in a similar style is in the cards.  From what I can see so far, it’s generally receptive to player feedback and course corrects where possible.  I don’t think it can really afford not to.  Moreso, with the Disney/EA partnership on Star Wars coming to an end, I’d expect that concrete roadmap plans are shared early in the new year.  Should be interesting.

That Pause

Life is ups and downs.  It’s full of contrasts and contradictions.  Canada loves the sun because we get bored of our dark igloos after a few months.  Utopia would drive me crazy, and certainly make it so that I wouldn’t appreciate it.  I need the challenging parts for me to properly recognize all the good I have around me, so that I don’t take it for granted.

And therein lies an interesting feature of top quality gaming, or at least what I consider top quality.  The ones that have stuck in my mind for ages are those where there are spots of reflection.  Spots where the story takes some time to breathe, to recall some of the adventure, and to prepare themselves for the next step.

I’m not talking about the calm before a storm, like the room before a boss piled with ammo/health packs.  That quiet is foreboding, it’s meant to build anxiety for what’s coming.  FPS games are all about that, and one of the main reasons they don’t click for me.  I mean those where the game simply stops being a game and turns into a story.

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The gold standard

It doesn’t have to be a single time either.  While FFX certainly has the fire scene to both open the game and close the 2nd act, there are numerous other places where the game just stops to tell a story.  God of War opts to only have shorter versions (using the boat) while the major cutscenes are built for stress.  The Outer Worlds does it on the ship.  Celeste has quite a few interspersed scenes where she talks to her other half.

The best of those pauses allow you to take a few steps back and consider the world the developers are trying to build.  Some keep player agency (Dragon Age:Origins) and let you direct parts of the story.  Others turn to vignettes, where the characters take a breath and come to terms with what’s going on.  As graphics have improved, so has the ability to tell a story with facial expressions.

This set of clips from Jedi Fallen Order is what made the game for me.  This is just after Order 66, where all the jedi are gone, but it never really hits.  You visit various planets trying to find a list of Force sensitive kids, seeing how those planets lived.   Dathomir in particular has no respite, and feels oppressive. Every part of that planet wants you dead.  Then you meet Merrin, and the world turns into one of sorrow.   You’ve been playing for 8 hours by this point, then in a 2 minute scene you get it.  It’s also the point where Cal starts to question his place in the world, and the actual goal of his quest.

I’m sure everyone has a particular game and scene where their appreciation for it changed.  They make good games great, and have them stick in your brain for a very long time.