Monday, January 30, 2012

Planet Truces

As previously noted, I've been spending a lot of time playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, and very little time writing about the game, or doing much else. It's been a fantastic game, as addictive as I'd feared. I've finally hit a decent milestone, the end of "Chapter 1", and figured this would be a good place to pause for a few brief reflections before diving back in yet again.

I'm currently at Level 35. I think this is a bit more advanced than the game expects me to be at this point; the final boss I had to fight was an Elite Level 32. One of many things I love about the game is that I haven't had to do any grinding at all; I just focus on playing the quests and stuff that interest me the most, and have gotten a ton of experience from doing it. The pace of leveling-up has slowed down from the heady early days, but not by as much as I'd feared. I could still generally get at least one level in a solid weeknight, and a few if I gave most of a weekend (as I've been wont to do). The leveling progression gives good rewards. As you'd expect, most of your stats get a decent boost. Higher levels also unlock a whole range of stuff, from better weapons and armor to newer quests. And, each level gives you an immediate opportunity to assign a Skill Point, and once you visit a trainer, the chance to purchase a new Ability or upgrade an old one.

I've been playing as an Operative, and putting most (well, okay, all) of my Skill points into the Concealment tree. This has made it possible for me to play the game the way I wanted to, and I've been having a blast. I've mentioned before that my main gripe with MMORPGS has been that it isn't much fun to play as a rogue-like character, which is my favorite play style for traditional RPGs. When I played a Thief in the original Ultima Online, that game actually gave a pretty faithful adaptation of thief skills - you could sneak around undetected, and you could pickpocket from other players - but it didn't lead to a fun experience within the world; it isn't too enjoyable to steal from real people, and in any case guards would rain death down on you if discovered. I briefly played a Rogue in WoW, and discovered that while this class was well-integrated into the WoW playstyle, it bore almost no resemblance to the rogues I was used to. Instead of a stealthy character oriented around avoiding combat and finding alternate solutions, the WoW rogue focuses on dealing huge bursts of damage to particular opponents.

In the early going, the Imperial Agent seemed very similar to the WoW Rogue. Once I hit level 10 and took my Operative specialization, I finally got access to Stealth, which let me sneak around and start being more strategic about my engagements. Finally, around the time I hit level 20, I started getting the abilities that let me fully enjoy the game. Sleep Dart can be used to incapacitate a single opponent; you can use this to keep a powerful enemy out of the fight while you take down weaker neighbors, or you can use it to disable the guard you don't feel like fighting at the head of a narrow tunnel. Similarly, Cloaking Screen gives a huge boost to your Stealth, making it easier to walk past enemies without being detected. Along with some other skill points I assigned into Concealment, it's extremely rare for me to be dropped out of Stealth until I'm ready for it. And last but certainly not least, for those "Oh, crap!" moments, is an ability to immediately exit combat and enter stealth. This has made it even more feasible for me to risk taking on opponents who seem like they may be too powerful, since I have an emergency escape available.

I was a little surprised at how long it took me to get additional companions. I'm not sure if this is particular to the Imperial Agent storyline or not, but I only received my second companion around level 33 (not counting the droid on my ship, who I can task for assignments but who doesn't have affection or his own storyline). That said, my first companion, Kaliyo, was a riot, and once I finally got Vector, he was great as well.


From both storytelling and gameplay perspectives, they're almost polar opposites. Kaliyo hasn't been too happy with my Light Side leanings, although I can generally keep her satisfied. Her distaste for the Empire and her love of chaos are her strongest motivations, so as long as I don't seem too touchy-feely about my good decisions, she's generally on board. Vector, though, is a dedicated Imperial loyalist through and through. He believes in diplomacy where Kaliyo believes in blasters. He generally prefers the preservation of life, where Kaliyo enjoys smoldering ruins.

I've gotten quite used to certain combat strategies with Kaliyo. She has a "Guard" stance that increases her armor and shield rating, and makes enemies more likely to attack her. When facing a cluster of enemies - say, for example, one Strong, two regular and one Weak - I will usually do something like the following:
  1. Approach in stealth
  2. Use Sleep Dart on the Strong opponent
  3. Backstab one of the Weak enemies
  4. Use Shiv to gain a Tactical Advantage. If Kaliyo was targeting them, they're now dead.
  5. Otherwise, Lacerate them. They're usually dead at this point.
  6. After all Weak enemies are dead, move on to the Regular ones. I usually try to target the same one Kaliyo is fighting, but she tends to jump around a little, so I'll finish off whichever one I'm on. My main work is a rotation of Shiv and Lacerate, with Backstab thrown in when I can.
  7. Once all other enemies are dead, I'll use Eviscerate on the Strong enemy to knock down their health a lot.
  8. Corrosive Dart will poison the Strong enemy
  9. I'll now return to my Shiv/Lacerate/Backstab rotation, but thanks to the Corrosive Dart, I'll occasionally be able to get off two Lacerations for each Shiv. (I rarely Corrosive Dart on normal or weak enemies, because they die so quickly anyways.)

Kaliyo will be eating up all of the enemies' damage as this is happening, so by the end of the fight, depending on their level and how powerful they are, we're both usually above 75% health, and I'm usually at nearly full Energy.

Elite enemies are a bit trickier. My usual approach looks like this:
  1. Take out any weaker enemies nearby. This is usually pretty easy, which is good; I prefer only facing one Elite at a time.
  2. Sleeping Dart will incapacitate the enemy; Slice Droid if they happen to be a droid.
  3. Move into position and open with a free Backstab, then immediately Shiv.
  4. Instead of spending this right away, I'll start Stim Boost. This also grants Revitalizers; between the two, they'll ensure I always have enough energy for a long fight, and will help my health stay fairly stable.
  5. I'll place a Corrosive Dart on them, then Debilitate to stun.
  6. Once my Shiv becomes available, I'll do that to gain another Tactical Advantage.
  7. For the rest of the fight, I'll keep an eye on the enemy and make sure Corrosive Dart is always up. If I see them trying to trigger a new ability, I'll try and interrupt it. I mainly focus on Shiv and Lacerate, throwing in other attacks and Backstabs as they come available, otherwise filling in with Rifle Shots.
  8. Kaliyo will take the enemy's attention for most of the fight, but if I'm able to pull off two Lacerations in a row, they'll spin around and face me. This leads to some pain, and makes it impossible to Backstab, but is actually better in the long run since it keeps Kaliyo alive longer, and they'll usually return to facing her again before too long.
  9. Depending on the enemy's strength, Kaliyo will sometimes die, but by that point the boss is usually close enough to dead that I can quickly finish them off.
So, the overall rhythm here is that I'm steadily whittling down the enemies' health, faster than they're taking down Kaliyo's. In contrast, when I fight with Vector, he's usually doing almost as much damage to them as I am; also, since he doesn't have an equivalent of the guard stance, enemies will usually flip between him and me more often. At the end of a fight with Vector, the two of us will often be at 30-50%; I haven't fought many Elite enemies yet with Vector, but he'll usually die fairly early, and I'll often have only around 10% at the end (even with my Revitalizers ticking). The nice thing, though, is that I usually finish my Vector fights quite a bit more quickly than my Kaliyo fights. If I ever step out of combat and let Kaliyo finish the job, it takes her FOREVER to get a kill, but Vector can do it in a decent amount of time; when the two of us team up, a weak enemy will be dead after one shiv from me, and a normal enemy will often die before I can get in the laceration. This leads to a very different playstyle, even when my actual rotation stays the same, and so far I'm digging it.

At the moment, I'm swapping out Vector and Kaliyo based on the situation. For a while I would always have Vector when I was talking with NPCs, since he's a bit less sociopathic. That said, now that I'm, um, operating a bit more outside Imperial jurisprudence, I'm often bringing in Kaliyo for my chats with subversive elements. For fighting, I'm generally playing with Vector for weak groups of enemies, and switching in Kaliyo for boss battles. Over the long term, I think it might be challenging to keep both of them outfitted in the best equipment, so I may focus on Kaliyo again later on.


Let's talk a bit about story, shall we?

It's great!

The game has a truly sprawling, epic sweep to it. There's an intense background to the game that draws from and builds on the huge lore of the Star Wars canon. By setting the game thousands of years before the original trilogy, they gave themselves a lot of license to make stuff up when it's convenient, but they also can tap into very powerful concepts like the Sith, droids, alien species, and Force powers. As just a taste of the rich background, the official SWTOR site includes several long online comics that give an overview of the chaotic events immediately leading up to the start of the game: the wind-down of a long war between the Sith Empire and the Galactic (Old) Republic; the Sith's betrayal that led to their capture of Coruscant; the internal divisions within the Republic Senate that led to their decision to abide by the treaty; the Emperor's mysterious long-term plans.

As I've noted before, there's an essential tension between the stories in traditional RPGs and those in MMORPGs. Part of why I prefer traditional RPGs is that the contributions of you as an individual seem so key. With just one player, it's easy to tell the story of how you, the solitary hero, must conquer the ultimate evil and single-handedly save the fate of the world. In contrast, an MMO has you running around the server with thousands upon thousands of other players. You can't ALL single-handedly save the world, of course. MMO stories can be more epic, but you'll always have a smaller slice of them.

What SWTOR does well is marry these two trends together. This is an MMO that can get away with telling a more traditional RPG story. A big part of this is the use of "Phases", which are the SWTOR equivalent of "Instances" in other MMOs. When you enter a Phase, it's just you (or, if you're traveling with a group, the other members of your group) inside. That means Bob from Idaho won't wander by while you're negotiating the future of Taris, and Sam from Cincinnati won't jump in and kill Darth Evilguy before you get a chance to. So, most of the time you're traveling through the same areas as the hoi polloi, but when the climax arrives, you have the scene to yourself.

So, while it embarrasses me to admit it, I've been playing this MMO like a single-player RPG, and loving it. I've muted the General Chat channel, which had been filled with out-of-character discussions of game mechanics, and gently refusing the guild invites I periodically receive. I go about my merry way, playing in the enormous sandbox that Bioware has created, saving the world (or, I guess, corrupting it into the Empire's grasp. Same difference).

Back to the story itself:

I've started to mentally divide the stories into two broad sections, Class and Planet. The Class stories are unique for each type of class that you can play. So far I've only experienced the Imperial Agent one, but I believe that this is almost completely different from the story you'd get as a Bounty Hunter, which in turn would be quite different from a Trooper. The IA storyline is awesome - I'll get into spoilers a bit below, maybe. It features strong recurring characters - and evolving characters, who change position and attitude over time in reaction to your decisions - and gives a lot of leeway over how you want the plot to move forward. The highest compliment I can give is that it feels a great deal like Dragon Age: Origins. Your decisions affect who lives and who dies, who stays faithful and who betrays you, and decisions made early in the game can have ripple effects that pop back up much later on.

Heck, let's go ahead and do the spoilers now. These are mega spoilers for the IA storyline, through the end of Chapter 1 (around level 35) and the early part of Chapter 2.


You start off as a greenhorn agent on planet Hutta. The Hutts, who run Hutta and a cluster of nearby systems, are neutral in the conflict between the Republic and Empire, and the Empire is trying to convince them to join the Imperial side. Because of the Hutts' cartel-like structure, there isn't a single lord of the Hutts, but rather each crime lord / entrepreneur runs his own territory. Your first major assignment is to infiltrate the organization of Nemro the Hutt and manipulate him into the Empire's arms.

You do this by working your way up the organization, removing some of his lieutenants and making yourself more important to him. You also meet up with Kaliyo, a bounty hunter on commission as Nemro's head of security. She figures out what you're up to, but as a very mercenary individual, she's happy to play along in exchange for a bigger paycheck. Ultimately, you convince Nemro to ally with the Empire, and get the Empire to bring you and Kaliyo back home.

Along the way, most of your mission instructions are delivered from the mysterious "Keeper", a sort of M-like figure (from James Bond) who appears in holocom format. As you continue on Hutta, and especially when you visit Imperial Intelligence headquarters on the capital planet of Dromund Kaas, you gradually become more acquainted with Intelligence. The best Earth analogy I can think of is Stasi, the East German security service. Within the Empire, the Sith are the unquestioned rulers, and nobody who is not a Sith can ever rise to the highest ranks of rulership. Since Intelligence is mostly drawn from non-Sith species, they are technically inferior in the hierarchy, and they are regularly ordered around by the Sith, particularly members of the Dark Council. However, at the same time, Intelligence has nearly unlimited access into everyone's affairs within the Empire. They can spy on anyone, constantly gather data, and ultimately serve the Empire itself rather than individual vendettas. Thus, even though Intelligence is officially low on the Empire's totem pole, they inspire fear in their very masters.

On Dromund Kaas, you finally meet Keeper in person, along with other members of Intelligence headquarters. The most interesting/alluring is Watcher Two, who is the acme of the Empire's eugenics programs, and a highly capable lieutenant. Keeper congratulates you on your success, and plans to assign you to another minor endeavor; however, Darth Jadus, one of the most powerful members of the Dark Council, intercedes and asks for you to personally help with one of his tasks.

Later, disaster strikes: while Darth Jadus is on a cruiser orbiting Dromund Kaas, a terrorist strike destroys the ship, killing thousands of civilians and Jadus as well. This is a huge blow against the Empire, and a major black eye for Intelligence, which failed to detect or prevent the catastrophe. For  most of the remainder of Chapter One, you are placed on counter-terrorism duty. Your goals are manifold: to track down the various terror cells, to infiltrate their organizations, to identify their leader (the mysterious "Eagle"), and prevent further attacks against the Empire.

You hop between various planets as your mission continues. I'll get into the planets a bit more in the non-class-specific part below, but I wanted to call out Nar Shaddaa while I'm thinking of it. Nar Shaddaa is probably my favorite planet design so far out of almost a dozen that I've visited. It's a huge megalopolis, strongly reminiscent of the world of Blade Runner. I absolutely loved this environment: it's entirely urban, so instead of running around swamps and jungles and desert and grassland, you're sneaking through alleyways, into labyrinthine industrial buildings, large plazas, etc. I eventually decided that, in my roleplaying personal lore, I'd say that Seberin was originally born on Nar Shaddaa; it fits very nicely into my cyborg character.

Anyways. On Nar Shaddaa you meet Watcher X, a extremely intelligent but erratic and dangerous member of your organization. He's kept in a high-security prison and consulted for the most important cases (shades of Hannibal Lecter here). With his help, you're able to infiltrate one of the terror cells, which has build affiliations with gangs of slicers (Star Wars hackers) and other criminal members of the Nar Shaddaa underworld.

Watcher X eventually betrays you and takes advantage of a power failure you caused to escape his prison. You have a confrontation with him by your ship, and kill him before he can escape. I generally take the Light Side solution when it's presented, but in this case, for some reason, it was considered Dark Side to let him escape and Light Side to kill him. Which seems a little backwards to me, but over time, I've gradually come to grok the Imperial Light/Dark side a bit better. As far as I can tell, in the Imperial storylines, Light Side doesn't necessarily mean being virtuous and kind; the Light Side choices tend to be the ones that benefit the Empire the most, which means doing your duty; the Dark Side choices tend to be the ones that harm the Empire or that benefit you personally, such as accepting bribes; Dark Side choices also are ones that let you indulge in pointless violence, such as randomly killing people who have surrendered to you. So, killing because you're following orders is Light Side, but killing on a whim is Dark Side. Again, seems a little odd to me, but it's pretty consistent, and I guess it does help keep moral choices interesting for Light Side people in the Empire.

Kaliyo was my only companion for a very long time. Well, technically, I did pick up a droid companion when I got my ship, around level 16; he isn't much of a fighter,  though, and can't seem to gain affection, so I usually just keep him grinding on slicing missions. Anyways, around level 30 or so I finally went to Alderaan, where I made contact with a man named Vector. Vector is a lifelong employee of the Empire's diplomatic service, and he recently voluntarily became a member of the Kiliks, a barely-sentient hive-minded insectoid species native to Alderaan. He's a pretty fascinating guy; much more diplomatic and thoughtful than Kaliyo.

Aaaaanyways... you continue to travel through more planets, and finally get a lead on the location of the Eagle. It turns out that he was hiding out on Hutta all along. That was pretty fun - I got to travel back to Hutta around level 32, and fly my speeder past all the poor Level 2 bounty hunters trying hard to win fights against scary swamp creatures. In the Eagle's nest, he sent away his supporters, then we fought a semi-epic fight. I eventually defeated him, but before I could turn him over to the guards, he blew himself up. He did let slip, though, the fact that he has a "sponsor," someone very high up in the Empire who had helped him out by identifying targets and otherwise prodding him to be a better killer. The Eagle has already managed to place a set of orbital weapons that could kill millions of people; you have now acquired his codes, which can be used to target the weapons, but you can't take them offline without the other codes, which are held by his mysterious sponsor.

You regroup at Intelligence headquarters, where Keeper charges you and Watcher Two to a star system where a cloaked Imperial cruiser has been detected; this seems to be your best lead on the mysterious sponsor. You and Watcher Two share a brief moment before the mission; I was hoping that a romance option would be available here, and it seems like it MIGHT be a possibility, but I was far enough along with the Kaliyo romance that it didn't go anywhere. You finish traveling to the star system, meet with Watcher Two, and infiltrate the ship. You finally meet your mysterious adversary: Darth Jadus! That's right, he wasn't killed after all. He has planned this all from the beginning: he set up the Eagle and the whole terror network in order to throw the Empire into chaos, free himself from the scrutiny of the Dark Council, and eventually seize total power for himself, second only to the Emperor.

It seems like there are a variety of options for how to deal with this situation: I believe you can ally with Jadus and become his pawn, or try and stop him; if stopping him, you can focus on killing him (at the cost of many civilian deaths), or try to stop the weapons (but likely let him escape). I was torn by this decision, but eventually decided to save lives, even with the knowledge that Jadus at large could cause even more deaths later on.

That pretty much brought me up to the end of Chapter One: Jadus's plot had been foiled and he himself had fled. Keeper ordered me to the Fleet for some R&R; on my return, I learned that there had been a shakeup within Intelligence. Despite Jadus's treachery, the other Sith on the Dark Council were still unhappy that Intelligence had defied a Sith, so they demoted/transferred Keeper, and made Watcher Two the new Keeper. My star was rising, but I also had made the Council uncomfortable; for my next task, they assigned me to become a double agent, infiltrating the SIS (the Republic's secret intelligence service) and getting close to their leader, an Imperial defector. And... that's where I am now. I'll save that story for a later post.

I keep saying this, but the story is really good; I'm not doing it justice at all with my capsule summary, there are tons of cool nooks and crannies. I haven't even talked at all about finding the traitors on Alderaan, or the shadow warriors on Tatooine, or Jadus's delightfully insane daughter and heir. From the little poking around I've done on the forums, it sounds like the IA story is one of the best of the eight that Bioware has come up with. And that just blows my mind: the sheer amount of content in this game is incredible, and I'm only partway through one of a fraction of the storylines that they have here. Pretty cool!


So: whenever you arrive at a planet, you're usually tasked with one of your Class quests. This will lead to a series of other Class quests, until you accomplish your main objective, at which point the story will continue and you'll be led to the next planet. However, in the course of carrying out your main objective, you'll run across many other missions on the planet. I think of these as being "Planet Quests". They're almost always given by members of the Imperial hierarchy - Sith lords, or officers in the Imperial army, or occasionally field doctors and other Imperials. These tend to be more self-contained, but there is usually an overall theme to the progress on a particular planet: the Empire is trying to gain a particular advantage, and by carrying out the set of missions, you can bring them forward. Sometimes, accomplishing a mission just gives you an "attaboy" (well, along with credits, experience, and some gear), but often it'll lead to another mission that brings you to a newer, more dangerous part of the map, and carry that planet's storyline forward.

I just love how incredibly varied the planets are. It's most immediately obvious in the artwork and design: you would never confuse Balmorra with Alderaan, even though they're both temperate Earth-like planets, and places like Tatooine and Hoth look a lot like what you'd expect from the movies. But, the tone of the missions and the people you meet are also quite different from place to place. Sometimes the Empire is fighting a war in all but name against the Republic; sometimes they're defending territory they consider "theirs", other times they're seeking to open a new front; sometimes their presence is quite minimal, either because they're new to the system or because the planet doesn't seem strategically important enough to warrant a full division.

START MINI SPOILERS for EMPIRE MISSIONS on various PLANETS (spoilers organized by planet)

Hutta: This is where bounty hunters and imperial agents get their start. I've talked about it in the IA section above. Despite the name "Hutta", the Hutts actually aren't indigenous to the planet. It was originally inhabited by Evocii (rhymes with Uruk Hai); the Hutts had exhausted the resources on their home planet, and when they discovered this one, they made treaties with the Evocii and purchased land from them. Over time, they gradually gained more population and more influence, until eventually the Evocii were totally supplanted by the Hutts and forced to live in subservience in special areas. (Any resemblance to the plight of Native Americans getting supplanted by technologically superior Europeans is surely coincidental.)

Dromund Kaas: So: the Sith Empire actually was founded on Korriban, but at the end of the first war against the Galactic Republic, the Sith were pretty much wiped out and driven from their homeworld. They settled on Dromund Kaas, which is now officially their capital planet, even though they've since recaptured Korriban. Dromund Kaas is a much wilder planet than I had expected; Kaas City is pretty big, but most of the area you visit is lush, overgrown jungle. Even though it's the capital, there are a lot of wild animals running around, and recently there have been several uprisings on the planet: some slaves have rebelled against the Sith, and there's also a secret sect of Revanites that seeks to propagate the teachings of Darth Revan against the will of the Sith. Many of the missions on Kaas have to do with putting down the slave rebellions, and you also can make some interesting choices about your approach to the Revanite problem. In my case I infiltrated their organization, recovered an artifact associated with Revan, and ended up supporting a more uplifiting, Light-aligned faction within the Revanites.

Balmorra: This place marks the first time that you've stepped outside of friendly Imperial territory and onto a truly contested world. Ever since the Treaty of Coruscant, the Empire and Republic have ostensibly been at peace; however, they're deep in a cold war, and on places like Balmorra that war threatens to become a hot one. Part of the terms of Coruscant ordered the Republic to withdraw their armies from Balmorra; however, the native Balmorrans continue to oppose the Empire's attempt to annex the planet, and a few high-ranking Republic officers have quit the Republic in order to join in the fight on the side of the rebels. The missions on this planet have a very structured military approach, as you seek to secure specific territorial areas for the Empire and weaken rebellious opposition. The grand coup of this planet came when I was able to prove that the Republican Senate was secretly providing material support to the rebels, putting them in violation of their own treaty, which seriously damaged Republican prestige. Balmorra is also interesting because it's the first planet with a "Bonus Series": after you finish your class quests and the planet quests, you'll be at a high enough level that you can move on to the next planet of Nar Shaddaa, but you also unlock a set of higher-level, more challenging missions that will crush the rebellion and firmly establish Imperial control. This was pretty amazing: I had thought that I'd already discovered everything there was to see on Balmorra, only to find that there were entirely new maps that I'd never been to before. The fights in the bonus series are tougher, but the rewards are greater, and if you finish them then you'll be fairly powerful by the time you reach the next planet. I love the game design of this: if you're in a hurry (which may happen if you're leveling an alternate character), you can skip this stuff entirely, but if you want to see more of the planet and build up your character more without grinding, then the bonus series is a really fun and rewarding way to do it. Oh! Also, the Bonus Series is driven by Darth Lachris (who, when I see spelled, I tend to pronounce as "La Chris", but is pronounced in-game more like "Lackriss". Too bad, sorta). Lachris may be my favorite non-class-storyline NPC character so far. She's the new governor (not "governess") of Balmorra, and is a determined, skilled individual; she isn't outright crazy or sociopathic like other Sith, but she still has a lot of that Sith edge to her, and she isn't completely self-absorbed like Thana Vesh will be; Lachris actually, um, appreciates your efforts on behalf of the Empire. (Around this point, I started getting in the habit of sending Kaliyo off on crew missions whenever I would stop to chat with Lachris.)

Nar Shaddaa: I talked about this more in the block up above, but to summarize: I love Nar Shaddaa. This is another world that's under the Hutt Cartel's influence, and it's the first neutral world that you visit, so for the first time you might bump into Republic players (though I didn't see many). Both the Empire and Republic have some pretty substantial facilities on the planet, including an Imperial droid factory, prison, network security center, and spaceport. However, most of your missions here don't involve the Republic; rather, you generally combat the various gangs (non-Hutt-controlled) that occupy various sectors. Some of this is to curry favor with the Hutts, or to cut off the Republic from black-market sources of information. Quite a bit later, I returned to Nar Shaddaa for a "bonus series" of missions that were in more direct conflict against the Republic. Part of this involved infiltrating one of their factories to break up some military research. There was also a really cool (albeit frustrating) escort mission where you need to oversee a politician's safety as he prepares to deliver a speech to the neutral sector, invoking the Empire's glory. Again, you have a lot of ways to take this: I ended up delivering the speech for him verbatim, but you could also use the opportunity to blackmail the Empire for more rewards, or drive fear into the hearts of your listeners.

Tatooine: Hey, it's Tatooine! I wonder if people in the Star Wars universe ever ask themselves just why this dumb planet is so important. I mean, it shows up in five of the six Star Wars movies, is the home of many major characters, and plays a part in just about every Star Wars game that I've ever played. And, in all of those media, it's this boring, mostly empty desert. Being a desert isn't all bad, though. By the time you reach Tatooine, you'll probably be around level 25, which is when you're eligible to buy your first speeder. A speeder is a personal hoverbike that lets you move around the map more quickly. It's nice to use in a lot of places, but ESSENTIAL on Tatooine - the developers took advantage of the wide-open spaces and undulating desert terrain, so you're in for some seriously long walks if you don't spring for a speeder. Again, I just love the variations in design here. Tatooine is pretty much the opposite of Nar Shaddaa: NS is filled with maze-like warrens, and I would often need to consult my detailed map to figure out how to get from point A to point B, even if the two were rather close as the proverbial crow flies. On Tatooine, in contrast, I could easily navigate anywhere on the planet with only my minimap: just point myself in the right direction, and keep on driving until I got there. Pretty much everyone you talk to on Tatooine hates being there and can't wait to leave; many of your missions are of the form, "Man, I just need this ONE THING taken care of, and then I can leave this godforsaken rock and return to civilization." With good reason: Tatooine doesn't have any strategic importance, and only Mos Eisley has anything close to any culture. (Side bar: there's a HUGE variation in cantina quality across the galaxy. The Hutt planets have by far the best cantinas; even Hutta's is pretty good, and Nar Shaddaa, although it's inconveniently located, is great. The pure Empire planets have AWFUL cantinas: Dromund Kaas's is deathly dull, and the ones you get on military outposts like Hoth are so tiny that they're barely worth mentioning. Mos Eisley's cantina doesn't look much like the one in A New Hope, but it's pretty happenin', and probably the best non-Cartel-planet-Cantina I've been to yet.) The only people who are actually excited to be on Tatooine are members of the Imperial Reclamation Service. They're led by an academically-minded Sith and a very gung-ho bureaucrat; that sounds like a boring team, but they had really interesting personalities, and this was one of the better, more driven stories in the planetary plotlines. The Imperial Reclamation Service is kind of like an evil version of Indiana Jones: they do archaeological digs, learn more about ancient cultures, and use their powers to expand the dark reach of the Sith. There are a lot of missions involving these guys, and they eventually lead you to making discoveries related to the Infinite Empire, an ancient-even-during-the-time-of-the-Old-Republic star-spanning culture that has been gone for millennia but left behind fascinating and powerful artifacts. You eventually make contact with a consciousness from the Infinite Empire, and can negotiate its fate. Once again, the Light Side / Dark Side choice here felt a bit arbitrary to me; it's Light Side to destroy the sole remaining entity from the Infinite Empire, and Dark Side to allow it to ally with the Empire. Meh. I annihilated it. Oh, and also: jawas and sandpeople! I love playing with those guys.

After the depressing barren landscape of Tatooine, I loved my time on Alderaan. Alderaan is an advanced, peaceful planet. It has traditionally been one of the core world of the Republic; however, the Senator from Alderaan had opposed the Treaty of Coruscant, and was so disgusted at the treaty that he left the Republic over it. It was believed that he was negotiating Alderaan's re-admittance into the Republic, but he was killed soon after, and his queen died later in a spacecraft crash. So, after a thousand years of peaceful and stable government, Alderaan is now in the grips of a civil war to claim the throne. Not only that, but for the first time ever, the Empire is now able to directly involve itself in Alderaan's affairs, now that it's officially no longer a Republic member. The Empire is overtly supporting the Thuul house, a fairly brutal family of nobles who have returned from exile to seek the throne of Alderaan. The Alderaan civil war is the best example yet of the proxy war between Empire and Republic, very reminiscent of the wars in Korea and Vietnam between the Soviets and Americans. The Republic is supporting the Organa house (sound familiar?), and at least one other old House is in the mix as well. Your missions on Alderaan primarily focus on propping up Thuul house, which the Empire actually kind of holds in contempt; Alderaan has gone for so long without fighting any wars that even the "evil" Thuul are relatively passive and trusting. As time goes on, you can uncover more information about the death of the Queen, and eventually convince her royal supporters to throw their weight behind Thuul's claim; you also can discredit the Republic/Organa axis and seek to alienate the Organas from the rest of Alderaan. All in all, another really fun planet. It's pretty, too. The big city near the spaceport is the last good-sized and good-looking city I've been on, and the terrain is really pleasant - not as thickly populated by monsters, and with a lot of good variety while still remaining pretty easily navigable.

After finishing the Alderaan planet series, I'd spent several in-real-life days finishing up my class quests associated with Chapter One, described in mega-spoiler-ville above.

Taris is a FASCINATING place. Not a fun place, but it's got a great backstory. Several centuries ago Darth Somethingorother sought to destroy Taris, and basically succeeded. Taris used to be a worldwide megalopolis with an advanced culture, much like Coruscant or Nar Shaddaa, but the Sith Lord dropped so many bombs and chemicals and other destruction on it that all advanced life was wiped out. For hundreds of years, only a few small creatures were able to live, along with Rakghouls, who are sort of like the Star Wars equivalent of zombies: infected humanoids that have turned into mindless, ravenous beasts. The pollution has finally dwindled to the point where Taris could theoretically be reinhabited, and the Republic has provided aid to several refugees and settlers seeking to establish colonies on the blighted landscape. The Empire has come back as well, and the whole tone of this conflict is fascinating: unlike almost every other planet, where the two sides are engaged in a contest for control over a planet, on Taris the Republic wants to save it, and the Empire wants to destroy it. Not just one or two rogue elements, either: pretty much everyone you talk with speaks gleefully about completing the Dark Lord's plan and permanently ruining the world for all future habitation. Even after completing all the quests there, I still don't really get WHY - I guess that's why I'm a Light Side guy - but it's the most mustache-twirling villainous side of the Empire I've seen in the whole game. "Yes... we will fight as long as we need to, sacrificing as many lives as we must, in order to ensure that nobody can ever live on this world again!" Taris is kind of frustrating to navigate in, especially after Alderaan; the planet itself isn't that big, but you have all these enormous cracked old walls that form impenetrable barriers, and it's often hard to figure out how to get where you need. This adds to the character, of course, and once I got used to the main routes it became much easier to move around in. Still, the speeder transport service is probably more important on Taris than on any other planet, just because of how constrained the navigation is, and how densely packed hostiles can be.

Finally, for now, Quesh. Quesh is an odd little place. I think it's probably the smallest map I've been to, with the possible exception of the starting planets; pretty much everything takes place in one overworld map with a few interiors, and I think there are only two (MAYBE three?) speeder transport sites on the whole world. Anyways. Quesh is... actually, I think it might be the first truly Republic-controlled, as opposed to just disputed, planet that you've been to. Quesh has a noxious atmosphere, which is so poisonous that it can't produce or export much of anything. The exception is, of course, poison. The Republic is able to actually mine the source of this poison, which is used in the production of "adrenals". According to the in-game Codex, adrenals are basically like non-addictive drugs; they can be used by soldiers and others to boost their physical and mental abilities. Except, within the game, they're basically like addictive drugs; you're regularly running into people who are more or less junkies, giving you quests that involve you acquiring adrenals or the means to produce adrenals, and returning it to them. The main plot for this planet involves the Three Families, a triumvirate of Hutts, that's on the verge of breaking Hutt neutrality to ally with the Republic and ensure them a steady supply of combat adrenals. I worked with one of the Three who kinda-sorta but not-really was on the Imperial side, and ultimately broke up that plan. And then I left. Quesh was also pretty buggy (more on that below), and while it was interesting, I doubt there will be much more for me to do there.

And... now I'm on Hoth! Just arrived, haven't even been outside the spaceport yet. Looks cold.



Okay - this post has gone on for WAY too long already. And, as per usual, it's become obsolete in the time it's taken me to write it. I think I'd said I was level 35 when I started; well, now I'm level 40, so I'd better publish this ASAP. It's been a blast. Now that I'm 40, I've finally reached the top of my skill tree, which means - hooray! - I'll finally get access to Acid Blade, which sounds incredible. I ALSO just got my license for a Level 2 speeder, and was able to build my own Custom-Built Speeder Bike, using my Cybertech crafting and designed from plans I'd stolen during a Slicing mission, using some Scavenged materials (and some rare Titanium I bought on the Galactic Trade Network). I can't wait to use this guy.

A few final thoughts before I wrap this up:

As you've probably been able to tell by now, I really, really like this game. It's astonishingly deep and rich, and supports a multitude of games inside it. This probably isn't the best analogy, but I'm reminded a bit of the euphoria I felt when I first started playing Grand Theft Auto III and San Andreas: it isn't just a great game, but a game so great that it contains entire other games within itself. In GTA, I could have a blast just playing the equivalent of Crazy Taxi, which would be just as fun as the "real" Crazy Taxi, but was an entirely optional game within the larger game of GTA. SWTOR lets me fly space missions (rail-shooter game), sneak through enemy hideouts (Thief: The Dark Project), lay waste on a battlefield (action game), engage in intricate dialog and sprawling plots, encompassing a broad collection of independently-minded NPC companions (Dragon Age: Origins), run a side-business of collecting and selling goods (Lemonade Tycoon), etc., etc. And I haven't even done any truly multiplayer parts of what's PRIMARILY a multiplayer game.

Given all that, it probably shouldn't surprise me that some parts of the game are buggy or unpolished. Here are the most noticeable ones I've found so far:
  • There's an AWFUL bug that makes the boss at the end of the Imperial Agent's Chapter One storyline practically impossible to beat. The game refuses to let you target him, so he'll kill you and your companion without even being able to fight back. Judging from the forums, this has been the case since the game first came out. In the month since its initial release, SW:TOR has gotten a dozen patches and at least one major upgrade, and it's really inexcusable that such a bad bug in such a critical part of the game is still happening.
  • Less game-breaking, but still embarrassing, is some dialog around the middle of Chapter One in the Imperial Agent's class line. There's a whole set of dialog you have where, when your turn comes to speak, all the options on your dialog wheel are blank. Oh, they all MEAN different things, but good luck figuring out what it is before you press it! Nothing gamebreaking, but I did lose some Affection from one of my blind guesses, which irritates me a bit.
  • Some of the fights on Quesh are pretty buggy. In particular, there are a few places where you run into clusters of two or three Strong opponents who are each WAY stronger than the Elite enemies you also find on the planet. Once I figured this out, I could generally just avoid those fights, but less-stealthy classes might have a harder time dealing with it.
I really wish that Bioware had fixed those bugs, especially by the 1.1 patch; but, again, I think that's part of what comes with them creating such a massive, sprawling game. Even given the huge amount of time that SW:TOR has spent in development, there's just a ton of content in there, and it must be really difficult to keep up with everything. (That said... man, it's really surprising that they haven't fixed these yet.)

Okay, I really need to end this now. (So's I can get back to playing SW:TOR, you see.) I'll probably write at least one more post, probably when I wrap up my class storyline, and/or when I hit level 50. I'm not sure where I'll go from there. Part of me wants to start an alternate Imperial character that I can level up, and maybe be closer to the level of some of my other friends / family who are playing less fanatically than me. Another part wants to start a Republic character, so I can experience all the new content on that side. (I think that another Imperial character would give me a totally new set of class missions, but probably the same planetary missions, whereas as Republic character would be all-new missions across the board.) Being Republic would keep me from being able to share money and resources, though, which would be one of the great perks of starting a new Imperial character - in particular, my lack of Underworld Trading is really hurting my advanced Cybertech crafting. And, of course, there's a decent chance that I'll take the excuse of finishing the Imperial Agent storyline or hitting 50 to finish the game. That's the dangerous thing about MMO's: once they suck you in, it's very, very hard to leave. Consider me Exhibit A.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Publican

Just wanted to drop in and report on my experiences thus far in The Old Republic!

I just recently reached level 20, which doesn't seem to be as big a milestone in-game as other levels, but is still a nice round number.


I first met a companion a little before Level 10. Level 10 is when a whole bunch of stuff starts happening. By this point, you've presumably learned how to navigate around in the world without bumping into walls and falling off cliffs, and can kill enemies without always dying, so you're more or less fit for polite society. You can travel off your starting planet to your fleet, and for the first time will run into human players of much higher level (since there's no reason for higher-level players to be visiting your starting planet). You can also choose your specialization, which will have a drastic impact on how you play the rest of the game. For levels 1-10, I was an Imperial Agent, which is a ranged class that does a lot of damage. I could have chosen to specialize as a Sniper, which would make me into a much more lethal version of the same. Instead, I chose to be an Operative, which combines a bunch of stuff together: I'm a healer, and a stealthy fighter who can do a ton of damage at close range, but at the same time I still have (and am advancing in) my ranged damage skills. About the only thing I can't do is take a lot of punishment.

Around level 15, you get your own spaceship. This is AWESOME. There's a whole other game around your spaceship, which feels a lot like Descent. I've flown three missions so far; I flamed out spectacularly in my first try, and have won every mission since. They're like… well, they feel just like the space fights in the Star Wars movies, really. You fly in a squadron of fighters, and have a bunch of enemy fighters who may get on your tail, then zip ahead of you and try to dodge your fire. Sometimes you're flying through fields of asteroid debris, other times around huge capital ships that are engaging in fights of their own.

For my first mission, I had to disable a large monitoring station. The missions are all timed, and you need to complete set objectives by the end of the timer without dying. The station included antennae, turrets, and power generators. We would fly in to try and take out some of the targets, then keep on flying as we would turn around for another pass, all the while dealing with the stream of enemy fighters hurling in. On my first attempt, I managed to take out all the targets after about 3 minutes, but my shields were nearly gone, and I was destroyed before we could calculate the jump to hyperspace. I think I've since gotten the hang of it: whenever there are fighters on the screen, always focus on taking them out. I think that if you shoot them early, then they're taken care of; if you let them last longer than a certain amount of time, they'll shoot you and damage your shields. Since there's much more time available to finish the mission, you can just worry about your main objectives when you don't have any enemies currently visible. Sure enough, since then I've accomplished this mission three times, each time earning a very nice chunk of experience, credits, and some fleet commendations.

A second mission involved taking out a celebrated Republic pilot, sort of a Red Baron figure, along with his squadron of elite fighters. The "elite" fighters proved to not be very challenging; I could take out each one with a single missile. (You have a limited number of missiles, but each does much more damage. The game encourages you to use these on your mission targets; I usually hold them in reserve, and will start deploying them either when I'm running low on shields or when I have limited time left for my objective.) This mission had a very different feel than the listening station one. First of all, instead of flying through similar approaches on multiple passes, you're basically moving forward the whole time. Second, you only get one shot at each of your objectives, but they're on the screen for a much longer time. In this mission, I basically take out the fighters as they come up; when the "Red Baron" shows up about halfway through, in the middle of a huge squadron, I take out all the associates from a distance, then empty all my missiles into the leader. So far he's always gone down while still at a distance; I assume that if I let him live longer, eventually he'd get closer and be much more of a threat. Other than that, the other thing is to keep an eye open for his elite squadron, who seem to arrive in 2's. The first 2 show up at the very start of the mission, another 2 around the midway point, and the final 2 right at the very end.

The third mission (and the last that I can currently run, though I'm sure there will be more at higher levels) is an escort mission. I typically HATE escort missions, in all types of games, but this one felt a lot of fun. Instead of enemies focusing their fire on you, they're shooting at the target shuttle, which is (usually) in front of you (although sometimes he goes off course… "Where is he going?"). As with the other missions, I just love the scale of this thing. It's thrilling to be flying toward a cloud of dozens of enemies, then have a destroyer suddenly appear below you.

Oh, yeah: the single best part of these missions is the vertigo they induce. I mentioned "Descent" earlier; unlike Descent, these missions run on rails, so you're just targeting and not having a ton of control over movement (other than some adjustments to dodge asteroids, ships, etc.). But it's so thrilling to see the screen swoop around dramatically as you pursue and are chased in all three dimensions, often with no empirical sense of where is "down" or "up". I love it.

Okay, enough space mission stuff:

Like I said, nothing too special seems to happen at 20 (though I haven't returned to the Fleet yet, and there may be something waiting for me). However, I've already received notice that at level 25 I'll be able to purchase a vehicle, which is roughly equivalent to a mount in World of Warcraft. I've seen a few of these on the Fleet. They look a little goofy in a space station, but would be awesome planet-side. I'm guessing that they let you move much more quickly, and possibly avoid some combat as well.


Heh... well, between writing that last paragraph and starting this one, I've advanced to level, um, 26. I'm going to go ahead and post this now, as my playing is increasingly outstripping my writing. There's lots more to say, and hopefully I'll grab some time soon to say it. In the meantime, I have a galaxy to subvert!

Monday, January 02, 2012


Now. At long last. It isn't exactly realtime, but it can FEEL like I've spent over four hundred years playing EU3. It's a truly massive game, incredibly involving, and just as complicated and ambiguous as history itself.

As I headed into the endgame, I was increasingly attacked by my neighbors. I fought almost a half-dozen wars against Aragon and Portugal; I think that Aragon had finally gotten fed up by my endless espionage against them, and once they snapped, they didn't let up. Each war followed a predictable path. Aragon would cross the border into my southern portion of Africa and lay siege to a border province. I would raise new regiments, or muster the ones from the previous war, and slowly march them to the front. I would break the siege. Then, I would embark on a long, painstaking march up the western coast, besieging each of the Portuguese and Aragonese provinces that I reached, driving back or destroying their armies. This was always the main encounter; if Aragon had mid-European allies in a war, I would evacuate my two Germanic provinces to avoid battle; in all cases, I would usually destroy Aragon's fleet in Vietnam, and occasionally land troops there as well to occupy their provinces.

This would continue for a few years. Eventually, Portugal would send down a mega-army of 25,000 or so troops. Once I saw them coming, I would sue for peace. I usually had a War Score of around 10-30% by this point, but could rarely get good concessions; I would often ask Aragon to release their Asiatic nations, and could sometimes squeeze a few extra ducats out of Portugal. Aragon would still hate me, though, and would attack again once our truce was up.

I finally got fed up with it after Aragon declared war on me for the fifth or sixth time. It was all so pointless; they could never muster a threat to me in my seat of power in Asia, and I had no interest in chasing them back to their Iberian strongholds. This time I accepted a white peace from them, and afterwards I stopped dispatching spies to Aragonese territory, and embarked on a diligent campaign of bribery. Aragon's opinion of me was always stuck at -200, and Portugal at around -100; by regularly gifting, I could get those up to 100. Annoyingly, once I got much higher they would start issuing insults to me, driving the relationship back down; I partly suspect that they might have been doing it on purpose, to keep the flow of funds coming.

Paying tribute doesn't come easily to me; I don't know that I've ever paid tribute in any game of Civ, since it usually just weakens you financially and at best will slightly delay an inevitable assault. Here, though, I've finally gotten used to it. By this point in the game, it isn't like I need the money for anything else; if anything, it's just the use of a diplomat that I'm losing. I actually had paid tons of bribes in the early stage of the game; back when I was still a monarchy, after I had married all other monarchs and signed open border agreements with everyone, I would pick a one-province ally and spam them with gifts to get our relationship up to 200. I was trying to diplomatically vassalize them; I never succeeded, and eventually stopped bribing, except for when I was trying to open markets or get military access. I was now rediscovering the utility of a well-placed bribe. After that, Aragon never declared war on me again, and eventually their opinion of me improved from "They expect us to break every deal and alliance" to "They trust us to uphold our bargains." They did seem to move towards war a few times - sending insults, canceling military access, and so on - but I kept the cash flowing and kept it under control.

I feel like most of my strategic advancement in this game has been a direct result of me un-learning lessons that I've learned over 20 years of playing Civilization games. One core principle that I've always clung to in the Civ games is to follow the Powell Doctrine: never enter a military conflict unless you bring overwhelming superiority, have well-defined goals, and are sure that they can be swiftly achieved. In the world of Civ, a single long, drawn-out war can kill your hopes of winning the game. The longer that you spend on a war footing, the more of your industrial production you're diverting towards building new units, instead of building structures that can improve your economy, science, and infrastructure. If you're in a war, and your rivals aren't, by the time you emerge from the war they will have advanced ahead of you. The only time a war is worthwhile is if you can capture several of your opponents cities. This will multiply your nation's economy and resources, and that in turn will strengthen you for later in the game. So, in most of my Civ games, I either avoid wars altogether, or else put off wars until I've built up an overwhelming technological superiority, at which point I can hopefully mow down my opponent with a small but highly advanced army, and either annihilate them altogether or take a good number of cities from them.

For the first several hundred years of EU3, I've mostly adhered to that strategy. I've avoided entangling alliances that could force me into a war that I didn't want, and I've previously complained about how the Holy Roman Emperor seat obligated me to fight opponents. If anything, war in EU3 seemed even more pointless than in Civ, because of how hard it is to take provinces from an enemy, and how much trouble they are once you have them. I'm still ambivalent about my conquest of Brunei, because it saddled me with a large cluster of provinces with the "wrong" religion and culture, which have required more care to avoid revolt and which don't contribute as much to my economy.

In the final century of the game, though, I was forced into many wars that I didn't want. After the Aragon/Portugal wars in Africa, I had a few decades of peace, and was delighted to see that those two nations eventually broke their alliance and started attacking one another across the battlefield of Castile. Soon afterwards, though, I was surprised by an attack from Russia. Russia has been the Big Bad Wolf of the second half of this game; they've steadily expanded, and built up quite a terrible reputation in the process. For a while I'd been insulated from them, thanks to Persia's peculiar colonizing of western Siberia; but an earlier war between Persia and Russia had left Russia with a crucial province on my border, and eventually they struck. Now, throughout the whole game I've been de-prioritizing my Land technology in favor of everything else, so Russia was about ten levels above me in tech, and had larger armies to boot. Fortunately for me, their border armies were a bit on the small side, so while they were besieging my provinces I was able to raise about 10,000 troops across Siberia, form them up, and march them up.

Russia's peculiar expansion program had left them with provinces scattered throughout coastal India, and here I had my greatest triumphs. I had a substantial navy, in order to maintain my tariff income, and had recently upgraded to Threedecker ships, the most highly advanced naval units. I fought a series of battles against Russia's fleet in the Indian Ocean, eventually defeating them all. I tried to blockade them, which had worked well in other wars in the pass, but for whatever reason Russia's "Blockade" always showed as 0% in the war progress summary; again, I'm not sure why.

In Siberia, I eventually broke the siege, but had a very scary main war. Russia's armies were HUGE, finally larger than even France's, and I was doomed in a straight fight. I tried to take every advantage that I could: I would goad his main army away from me while a second force attacked his smaller units; or I would choose battlefields where I was confident of gaining defensive terrain bonuses; or I would scorch the earth on my own lands so his armies would suffer huge attrition, then I would jump in to beat them back once they had diminished in size.

I didn't win, but I finally got to the point where I could negotiate a peace in exchange for a few ducats and relinquishing claims on some territories that I didn't even want. And you know what? It felt kind of like a victory. Partly because it was fun; partly because in the process of fighting the war, I'd been winning prestige, building up my tradition, and generally improving my lot. Even though I arguably "lost" the war, I was coming out of it a bit better than when I'd entered.

For the rest of the game, I've been more open about fighting wars, and have been pleased at the experiment. I no longer cancel alliances with newly released nations; instead, I'll keep them around, and if they need my help, I'll send my armies their way. Often I'm big enough to become the leader of our alliance, even though I never start the war. I've learned that, unlike Civ, I don't want these wars to end with me claiming a bunch of new territory; instead, I usually fight until the enemy is totally defeated, and then negotiate punitive terms of surrender, ordering them to release a bunch of nations and give up cores. If they're small enough, I'll vassalize them, but I won't annex them or take territory. (The one exception: after Manchu declared war on me twice, both times without any cores or nations to give up, I ended up demanding a few border provinces from them, then immediately turned around and "sold" them to Ming for 0 ducats. This diminished the border I shared with Manchu, and let Ming deal with the casus belli Manchu had on those provinces.) Besides giving me a lot to do, this has also given me a steady source of prestige, often carrying me up to near 100 by the end of a conflict. I've also been happy to see that I'm no longer getting attacked by my more powerful rivals; I'm not sure what causes this (my higher maintenance, or having a few [weak] allies, or just having been in a war recently), but it's been very appreciated, as I would much rather fight a bunch of small, easy wars than one or two big scary ones like the war with Russia.

It's been interesting throughout the course of the game to see the realistic-but-fictional rise and fall of major empires.  At the start of the game in 1399, the Golden Horde controls a mindbogglingly (wow, I can't believe that's a word! Spellcheck says it is!) large share of the world, stretching from Manchuria out to eastern Europe. Only Ming was a similar size, although Ming was content to stay within its borders throughout the game. As Russia and the Ottoman Empire expanded, they cut down the Golden Horde, until eventually they were reduced to a mere four non-contiguous provinces; I vassalized them after they attacked me in the 1700s. As the Golden Horde declined, Persia grew HUGE, expanding from the Middle East to envelop much of western India and Asia Minor; Persia even embarked on a massive colonizing effort, settling much of western Siberia. Persia declined once Russia started attacking them, and after they were weakened, most of their acquired provinces broke away in independence. The Ottoman Empire crested later in this game than they did historically, making their concerted push into central Europe in the eighteenth century; they also controlled all of northern and eastern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Asia Minor, and swaths of the Middle East. I was forced into a few wars with them; after those were over, their navies had been destroyed, and they lost most of their African holdings, and eventually succumbed to Russia and Austria; Austria blocked their western advance, and Russia swept down and gobbled up their core holdings around the Black Sea.

As for the major European powers: France grew big and powerful early on, swallowing up Burgundy, the Rhineland, Westfalia, and a good chunk of Spain; however, they seemed to reach stasis around 1600, and never became the juggernaut I feared. They came to colonizing very late in the game, but made up for lost time, settling much of western North America and the southernmost part of South America. Great Britain was a good, if distant, friend throughout the game, and probably the most major power who I never worried about fighting. They colonized Canada, and after a war with Castile conquered most of the eastern part of North America as well. Castile was the earliest power in the Americas; as in history, they conquered the Aztecs and Mayans, taking military control of central America before investing the time and effort of colonizing. Even though they lost most of North America, they held on to their central American territory. Castile also held on to the island of Aceh throughout most of the game. Portugal was another early American power, although they seemed to strictly colonize rather than conquer, and as a result controlled much of south America. Portugal also had significant colonies in western Africa, along with some territory on the northern coast that it took from Morocco. Finally, Aragon came late to the colonizing game; they tried for some in the Americas, but seem to have lost them; they were another major player in western Africa, and as previously noted, they were fairly active in Vietnam.

Late in the game, some North American colonies start rebelling against their European masters. While the names are historic, the locations seem flexible; "Venezuela" was actually located on St. Martin, for example. Haiti did break away from France, which seemed appropriate. "Guatemala" was another Caribbean island, in this case declaring independence from Portugal. By the time the game ended in 1820, Great Britain was fighting against Canadian and American patriots, who had captured some territories but didn't seem to yet have their own nation. I never had to deal with this, although I think it may have more to do with my choices than with my choice of territory; I would occasionally get some events about a "founding father" or a "corrupt governor," and always made the peaceful choice that would keep my colonists happy; I'm guessing that if I had gone the other way, I might have had to deal with my own revolution. (Though it may help that none of my territories had alternate cores, like Canada or America do.)

I kind of doubt that I'll play another EU3 game - it's utterly terrifying to think of how long I've spent on just this one - but I'm already thinking a little about what I WOULD like to do if I decide to play again. I'm currently thinking that it would be really fun, and really challenging, to try and play a game to unify Germany. This is possible in EU3, but extremely difficult (and rightfully so, since historically Germany wasn't unified until almost 60 years after the end of EU3). Most of the provinces that make up Germany are member-states of the Holy Roman Empire, so if you attack any of them, you'll likely face the Emperor and his huge armies; not only that, but because there are so many of them, and because you need to actually take ownership of the provinces, you'll rapidly build up a horrible reputation.

That said, I am already thinking about how to do it. I think the key would be to become the Emperor. In this game, I hated the way it was constantly plunging me into war, but with the goal of unification, I think it would actually be a benefit; instead of pursuing my own self-directed strategy to pick off opponents, I would wait until one member attacked another, then accept the call and join the war. I think I'd still get some bad reputation from annexing the aggressor, but at least I'd avoid the stability penalties, and so long as I waited a few years between wars the reputation shouldn't hurt too much. (Becoming the Papal Controller would help here, too.) I'm not sure yet which province it would make the most sense to play as. Mecklenburg would actually be pretty tempting again; they have a really excellent economy, and are fairly defensible. On the other hand, I'd be a bit interested to try playing as a landlocked minor province; that way I could eschew naval research altogether, and focus on building up my Land tech and economy.

One other game I'd like to play is a "race to the new world" type of game. I've had a lot of fun colonizing Asia and Oceania (other than the International Date Line bug), and it's been much easier thanks to having the land to myself, but I'd like to try colonizing America proper sometime. As I'm currently imagining it, I might try playing as Norway; they start with a settlement on Iceland, and from here it would be possible to explore, settle Greenland, and from there make landfall in Canada. If I can do this quickly enough, and pick the right National Ideas, I think I might have a shot at colonizing the Eastern seaboard prior to the other European powers coming within colonizing range, at which point I could expand inland at my leisure (perhaps leaving them the Caribbean to play with, depending on whether I have spare colonists).

I've also been interested to figure out other strategies that don't match what I'm doing, but would be successful in other circumstances. The best example of this may be the Free Trade / Mercantilism slider. As previously noted, I maxed out my Free Trade early on, and was kind of baffled as to why someone would want to pick Mercantilism. After all, even though it does help you dominate trade in your own CoTs, there will be far more other CoTs that you don't own, and it didn't seem worth trading in the money you would get from placing 5 merchants at every CoT in the world. Or so I thought, until I started competing in Muskogee. Great Britain had founded this CoT in North American after their colonies there had started to mature. It became the wealthiest CoT in the world; close behind was my own Ambon, which was the center for all my Asian and Pacific provinces. Now, in Ambon, I had just as much competitiveness as anywhere else; I could occasionally run a monopoly there, but for the most part I was content with just holding on to one quarter of the available wealth. In Muskogee, though, Britain fought fiercely to maintain their monopoly. They weren't content to just be in the monopoly position; they would keep dispatching additional merchants there.

Eventually, I figured it out. When you have a monopoly, and send a new merchant, it will compete out one of the other merchants; in other words, if you're in a monopoly, and there are 4 empty seats, and 10 nations with 1 merchant each, then your new merchant will compete against one of those 10. If you're playing as a full Mercantilist country with decent trading technology and bonuses, you'll probably outcompete him. Now, there will be 5 empty seats. So what? Well, instead of owning 50% of the trade, you now own 55%. And, if you're doing this in the wealthiest CoT in the world, and have high trade efficiency, that can be EXTREMELY lucrative.

To put it another way: if you could somehow get every seat in one CoT, that would be equivalent to getting 5 seats in 4 other CoTs of the same wealth. And, since Mercantilism gives a 40% compete bonus in your own CoT, versus the 20% from Free Trade in foreign CoTs, you may end up with a better chance at competing and keeping your position. Over the long run, then, you could end up with a lot more money, with less expense involved.

This strategy does have its risks, though. As I inadvertently discovered, all it takes is one country outcompeting you to seriously crimp this strategy. If you owned all the seats, and then lose your monopoly, your share of income is instantly cut in one quarter, from 100% to 25%. What's worse, though, is that until you reclaim your monopoly, there are now suddenly 14 free seats available for anyone to claim. Since your CoT is so wealthy, everyone will dispatch them, and may snatch them up before your own rescuing merchant can arrive. Then, it won't just be a matter of reclaiming the monopoly and driving out the usurper, but dispatching another 15 merchants to get rid of everyone else.

So, it's a high-stakes gambit, but one that would be fun to try for myself sometime.

Random thought: I really like the national missions, which give a nice focus to playing the game and offer some good but not balance-breaking rewards. However, every once in a while you'll get a mission which you just don't want to do - like to vassalize a friendly neighbor or to build an enormous and expensive army. The game does let you cancel a mission, but the price (5 prestige) feels too high, plus you can't cancel another mission for several years after. I think that the game should let you cancel a mission without penalty if you've already gone for, say, 50 years without accomplishing it.
Another random thought: the very last Idea I took was "Humanist Tolerance", and boy, what a stinker of an idea! I chose it almost at random, since I already had all the Ideas I actually wanted; my thinking was that, since Brunei was still Muslim, I could hopefully squeeze some extra happiness and revenue out of them. Well, the effect on that half-dozen provinces was marginal, but what was worse, after I picked the Idea I had to suffer a frequent parade of provinces abandoning the Reformed faith. Some became Protestant, some back to Catholic, and some Orthodox (!). That far outweighed whatever marginal benefits I might have received on Brunei; I'm never picking that Idea again.

Incidentally, this game's politics are really fascinating. Again, I'm used to a Civ-ish strategy game perspective, which tends to reflect the casually liberal view most often subscribed to here in America: multiculturalism is good, variety is good, plurality is good. That's good as a personal philosophy, but it's death in Europa Universalis 3. In Civ IV, for example, encouraging multiple religions in your city can let you build more cathedrals, expand your Cultural influence, etc. In EU3, there's no benefit to allowing any dissent from your official state religion. It only brings lower tax revenue, higher revolt risk, and more headaches. I'm very tempted to wonder if this reflects the different perspectives we get in polyglot America versus monocultural Sweden, home of Paradox Interactive.

Oh, yeah: the endgame. I was riding high after my last war against Russia, coasting on about 80 Prestige. Sadly, it didn't last; I entered a long period of peace, and without any warfare or Philosopher advisor, my prestige slumped, finally reaching a stasis of around 50 (thanks to Patron of the Arts and the Anti-Piracy Act). I was ranked #4 by the end of the game. The top two spots were occupied, bizarrely, by Corsica and Sardinia. I was never able to figure out just how they got all the prestige; they were never involved in any wars that I could see, they didn't have a Philosopher, and they only had one or two Royal Marriages. I guess they might have gotten some Prestige from cardinals (I couldn't see who was in the See after I left the church), but neither was ever the controller, so I kind of doubt it, and in any case that wouldn't explain how they got up to 80+. I suppose that they must have been fortunate with their missions. The third spot was held by France, which was more reasonable; in the last decade of the game, they had finally gone to war against Russia, thus pitting the world's two largest armies against one another, and doubtless providing ample opportunities for valorous combat. I like to convince myself that, since I was #1 for most of the game, I can still count myself as the winner, even if I lost the crown in the game's last few decades.

And with that, with little regret, it's time for me to clean out most of the 13GB of saved game files on my disk, and clear my mental space for the next round of gaming. Star Wars: The Old Republic beckons, and should I ever grow bored of that, I have the entire world of Deus Ex to tempt me. Not to mention the return to Fall from Heaven 2 that I've been dreaming of for years. The world of wonderful gaming need never end.

Res Publica

I was recently delighted/infuriated to receive "Star Wars: The Old Republic" as a gift. SW:TOR is the latest MMORPG to attempt to take on World of Warcraft (WoW), the undisputed champion of the genre for nearly a decade. I've been having a blast, and will probably write a more in-depth post at some point, but I wanted to share a few initial thoughts while they're fresh.

First, the vitals. I'm playing on Lord Ieldis, a West Coast RP-PvE server. When picking a server, I was a bit surprised to see that, at the moment, there seem to be nearly twice as many East Coast servers as West Coast. Now that I've thought about it some more, though, people from both CT and ET will probably play on East Coast, while PT and MT will play West Coast. There are (probably) way more people in Central Time than on Mountain Time, so I guess that makes sense.

I picked a roleplaying (RP) server mostly because I figured the game would be more fun if other humans acted more like NPCs and less like over-caffeinated twelve-year-olds. Thus far, people don't seem to be taking the RP designation too seriously; the General Chat channel was filled with discussions about quests and game rules, until I muted it about three minutes in. Finally, I knew I wanted to do a Player-versus-Environment (PvE) rather than Player-versus-Player (PvP). I'm usually much more interested in quests than in combat; I'm unlikely to ever feel like "picking on" other players; and, in any case, even PvE servers have zones where you can engage in PvP, so I wouldn't be giving up that experience, just making it more controllable.

My character is Seberin, a male cyborg Imperial Agent (and, as of last night, an Operative). I'm always drawn towards rogue-type characters in RPGs, so Imperial Agent and Smuggler made the most sense. My brother is planning on playing on the Sith side, so I went with the class that's on the proper side of the conflict.

As with other MMOs, I've been a tad disappointed so far in the Agent. In the best single-playing RPGs, rogues let you play in an entirely different way: sneaking around to avoid combat, charming your way through situations, and so on. However, in MMOs, everything seems to come down to fighting; the Agent does it with a bit more style (firing from cover, shivving enemies who get too close), but it's still about picking what type of damage you want to deal, not finding entirely new ways to accomplish your goals. I do wish that at least a few missions would let you complete them in non-lethal ways, but whatever. Now that I'm playing as an Operative, who does have actual Stealth capability, maybe that will become more feasible.

I was really happy, and surprised, to see that your choice of faction (Old Republic or Sith Empire) is independent of your force alignment (Light or Dark). That lets me role-play as the kind of character I want to play: a devious, duplicitous, greedy rogue who still has a soft spot for innocents and despises hierarchical organizations. At the moment I've collected close to a thousand Light Side points, and just around a hundred Dark Side. So far this doesn't have any impact, but from what I understand, it will eventually affect the types of items I can use, and maybe even my titles and appearance.

At first I'd felt a little bummed that we had a Light Side and Dark Side at all. It echoes the boring, reductive morality found in so many non-Bioware RPGs; I do love games like Fallout and Bioshock, but their "moral" systems are so laughably contrived ("Press X to destroy this box of kittens!") that it's impossible to immerse yourself in the choice. It really ends up not being about choice at all; you'll just pick one alignment, then always follow that choice, not because it fits the story or your personality but because it leads to the biggest in-game bonuses. Once I got farther into the game, though, I was happy to see that, while the Light Side and Dark Side do function as one-dimensional moral choices, the game ALSO layers on a relationship-based moral system strongly evocative of Dragon Age, which has by far my favorite moral system of any RPGs. In this system, your companions will react to decisions you make. They aren't driven by simple black-and-white, good-and-evil choices. My current companion, Kaliyo, is a mercenary; she likes it when I taunt people, or when I make unexpected decisions, or when I betray my employers. It's totally possible to finish a conversation and be rewarded with both Light Side points, as well as positive affection from her. The more I think about it, the happier I am with this system. After all, you couldn't have Star Wars without the Light Side and the Dark Side; they're integral to the canon. Within the game's universe, those things exist, and they're presented well. At the same time, the game makes room for characters like Han Solo, who aren't "good" but live by their own code.

I think that's it for now. I started playing Tuesday night, and hit level 11 on Saturday night, so in the early part of the game I'm gaining perhaps around 1 level per hour, though I expect that will slow down significantly as I continue to advance. I'm playing solo at the moment, but now that I'm off my starting world, I will probably have more opportunities to meet up with other classes and possibly do some party-based missions. So far, my favorite part of this experience has been the vast scope of the game world, and the Bioware-quality dialog. If they can manage to improve the mission variety, then I can see myself staying hooked for a long time.