Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Universe on Sale

For anyone who may be on the fence about picking up Star Wars: The Old Republic, Amazon has it on sale today. The game comes with one month of free playtime, after that it's $15/month, or cheaper with a multi-month subscription.

I wanted to give a very quick update on my current activities:

Since we last spoke, I've joined a guild (gasp!) and have mostly been doing multiplayer end-game content. I've been running Black Talon in Hard Mode whenever I can, and have actually gotten pretty good at it... it's a surprisingly good feeling to have evolved from asking for tips on the boss fights, to a point now where I'm briefing fresh level 50 players on strategy for the flashpoint. Most of the rest of "my" guild is still leveling, but I'm hoping that once more of them reach level 50 we'll be able to get more people involved in these hard-mode flashpoints. I'm excited and nervous about the prospect of eventually running guild Operations - I may need to invest in a microphone once we get to that point. I tried running Eternity Vault in a pick-up group over the weekend, and we wiped hard even before making it to the first boss.

I've been amazed at the quality of the flashpoints, and now regret having skipped all of them while I was leveling. They're a higher order of complexity than single-player content, even Heroics, and do require multiple people not only fighting alongside, but actually coordinating. (Well, at least at level - I did a solo run through normal mode Black Talon at 50, that sort of stuff is amusing.) So the gameplay is awesome, but the story is what sells me. The flashpoint where I met my guild leader is called The Foundry, and I can't say anything about it without providing massive spoilers, but holy cow, it's stunning. It feels like the climax to Knights of the Old Republic 3. It also contributes to the incredible sense of scope that the whole game provides - here I was, saving the galaxy and doing awesome stuff in my single-player class storyline, but at the same time I was missing this huge, separate plot thread that was playing out in the multiplayer content.

There's a good sense of progression in the endgame, which operates along multiple fronts... you can no longer gain XP or new abilities, but you advance in a lot of other ways. I've been steadily upgrading my gear, and am now in pretty good shape for the flashpoints I'm running - I'm equipped with two Rakata implants, a Tionese belt and earpiece, and otherwise some custom weapons with artifact mods and armoring components. You get way more money than you know what to do with; I now have almost 2.5 million credits burning a hole in my pocket, and largely just use the money to repair damage to my gear, though I'll sometimes pick up something from the GTN or toss some cash to a party member. The social aspect is important as well... I'm getting to know my guild-mates, helping them out with flashpoints and difficult boss fights, and trying to help maintain a positive atmosphere.

I'm still interested in starting an alternate character, but I think now that I might wait until version 1.2 arrives, which should be sometime in March. Version 1.2 is supposed to offer new enhancements for the legacy system, like choosing new races for your characters, and I hope that this is also when they'll unlock new romance options. I'd hate to start a new character and miss out on story-related options. In the meantime I'll keep playing as Seberin Cirion, Master Conspirator, and see how far this endgame goes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ilum in Ati

I've recently finished a sort of postlude to the single-player storyline of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Along the way, I've kinda-sorta inadvertently started picking up the multiplayer aspect of the game. That's something I love, and also kind of dread. It's pretty amazing that the game has been so satisfactory when I've been almost completely soloing it... it's an MMO, and I often see people in the game world, but I've very rarely interacted with them. I turned off General Chat fairly early on because some people were giving away parts of the story. I only had one brief, failed grouping experience, on Dromund Kaas (the first time trying a Heroic 4 can be extremely discouraging), and otherwise had pretty much only stuck to the standard missions, with an occasional try at a Heroic 2+ if I was several levels above it.

Once I reached level 50 and had completed the Corellia missions, I received a new mission: to travel to Ilum, an icy, rocky planet long claimed by the Jedi but of minimal interest to anyone until very recently. It has now become the latest battleground in the war between Republic and Empire.

Before I do that story: I finished sorting and posting screenshots from the last quarter of the game. I've divided this into "Mini Spoilers" and "Mega Spoilers", similar to the blog categories. Mini Spoilers includes pictures of some early companions you get, and some of the late-game settings, but I've avoided any plot-related items. Mega Spoilers includes some crucial reveals for both the Imperial Agent class storyline and overall Imperial planet missions, so click that at your peril.
 And now, back to Ilum:


The Jedi were devoted to Ilum because of its rare lightsaber crystals, but the Sith have discovered a far more important resource. Thanks to rare minerals found on this planet, the Empire is in the process of building a secret fleet of ships with cloaking technology. With this advantage, they will be in a position to directly assault the Republic's undefended core worlds of Coruscant and Tython.

It's a bit hard to describe Ilum without making it sound like Hoth... Ilum is extremely cold, requiring special gear, and has very minimal settlements with significant resources located underground. The settlers have actually transplanted some Hoth-native species there: Tauntauns as pack animals, and the Talz as mercenaries. It may be helpful to contrast them: Ilum has very little atmosphere, and is far from its star, so its sky is very black, unlike Hoth's generally blue sky; Ilum is far rockier, with large ice and stone formations jutting out of the ground, and so it doesn't have the wide-open navigation feel that Hoth has; and Ilum is smaller, with a few features crunched tightly together.

The series on Ilum is actually really short. Most planets have something like four or even five major quest centers, with as many taxi terminals, and a score of quests. Ilum, on the other hand, has exactly two quest locations, two speeder terminals (not counting the PvP area, which I haven't explored yet), and maybe about ten quests, several of which are optional and you can repeat later.

Your time on Ilum is spent serving Grand Moff Regus, who is now the overall head of the Imperial army in this area of the galaxy. Regus absolutely looks like he belongs on Ilum: he has some of the most startlingly blue, chilly eyes that I've seen. He isn't a straight-up bad guy, and doesn't have psychotic swings like the Sith, but he is a hard man. He's also quite racist, which becomes more important as the story continues.

Towards the end of your time on Ilum, Darth Malgus starts inserting himself into your conversations with Regus. Now, Malgus may be one of the most omnipresent NPCs in the game: he's the one who contacts you for virtually every Flashpoint throughout the game, and so he's the guy who's most actively urging you to join multiplayer groups to directly battle the Republic. In part because of this activity, he's becoming increasingly important in the Dark Council, particularly now that Jadus has left the picture.

The Empire has a really cool dynamic between the Sith and the military that I still haven't totally sussed out. I think the key is that both Sith and the military swear allegiance to the Emperor, but neither is directly in the other's chain of command. The Sith can pursue their own objectives that further the Emperor's goals (discovering dark power, corrupting Jedi, etc.) while the army continues a more traditional fight against the Empire's enemies, focusing on taking planets, defending Imperial turf, and waging attrition against the Republic. An individual Sith is more powerful than an Imperial officer, but if the Imperial is doing his duty, the Sith can't force him to countermand that. At the same time, they can trade influence, bully, etc.

So: Darth Malgus has a plan. The Jedi have captured the stealth fleet, with the aid of their allies, the Kaleesh. The Kaleesh are a traditional race with a great respect for strength and hierarchy. Malgus asks you to engage in a ritual to challenge their leader; doing so will convince them that the Empire is a better ally than the Republic, and cause them to join you. Regus HATES this idea. Again, in the Empire's eyes, the Sith and humans are the superior races, and all others are inferior; they're not just lesser, but in the eyes of people like Regus, admitting them into the Empire's ranks will dilute its strength and character. He'd rather be a purer, smaller force than a larger polyglot one.

Of course, I'm inclined to agree with Malgus on this one. If nothing else, traveling with Kaliyo has shown me that alien species can be incredibly formidable. This would hardly be the first time that I've worked to bring alien species into the Empire's fold, such as my ongoing work with Vector to create an alliance with the interplanetary Killik. I side with Malgus, to the extreme irritation of Regus.

To make a long story short, this proves to be a huge mistake. I successfully convince the Kaleesh to join us, after barely getting through yet another super-tough mission. (I had three nearly game-breaking missions in the game: the Darth Jadus fight at the end of Chapter One, the Avatar fight at the end of the main Voss storyline, and this random elite battle in the Kaleesh caves that spanked me until I took a break to gear up from the daily missions on Belsavis.) We find and defeat the Jedi who has successfully captured the fleet. This may be the ugliest guy I've seen yet - note to self, white dudes do not look good in cornrows.  (This was actually another really tough fight - he has a habit of dropping into stealth and summoning help during the fight, and he has one special attack that makes you impossible to heal. I eventually beat him on my third try by swapping out Lokin for SCORPIO, who was able to hold his attention for most of the fight. She eventually died, but by then he was down to a quarter health, and I BARELY managed to finish him off, and ended up running around in a panic, afraid that the last minion would take away my last 50 health.)

Darth Malgus congratulated me, and took possession of the fleet, while I headed back to the base camp to chat with Regus. He had some words for me. Well-deserved, as it turned out. Darth Malgus had claimed the fleet for himself, and not only that, but he issued a proclamation throughout the whole galaxy that the old Emperor was too weak and passive, and Malgus was declaring himself the new Emperor. Gasp! And so, out of nowhere, we were plunged into a civil war.

And... that's kind of where things ended up. I'd completed the last of the single-player missions in the game, which lead directly into a new Flaspoint called The False Emperor that follows and completes the story. Flashpoints require a group of four people, and I wasn't playing with anyone, so...


So, I found myself in a bit of a quandary: if I wanted to continue the storyline, I'd need to move on from six weeks of wonderful single-player gameplay, and start treading water in the scary pool of, well, massively multiplayer online games.

As is my wont, I googled a fair amount to see where I should go from here. There's a very active online community, including lots of very useful guides (and also a lot of invective) on Bioware's official forums. This included a guide for new Level 50s, which included me. I started learning about the mechanics of endgame gearing, flashpoints, and operations. The most encouraging thing for me was seeing that there was a path for a single player to "get ready" for more advanced group activities. These mostly center around the "daily missions". I'd already been participating in one of my favorites, the hardest space mission (The Ascendency Barrier), which yields 2 Daily Commendations. The guides pointed the way to other Daily Commendations on Ilum and back on Belsavis; Belsavis actually has more missions and more commendations, but fortunately they're clustered in two mission areas, and not in the very-hard-to-reach parts of the map.

So, what does one do with Daily Commendations? You can turn them in for some of the best equipment of the game. These include artifact Level 50 Armoring mods, which are a bit better than the best stuff I can craft; artifact Barrels; and Rakata implants and earpieces. The mods and barrels cost 8 commendations each, while the implants and earpieces are a hefty 120 commendations. The very first thing I did was buy a Patron Barrel. After that, I started saving for an Implant. (No, not THAT kind of implant! It's, like, glandular.) I think most people first max out on the Armoring components, but the ones I can craft are just 1 point lower in Endurance and Cunning, provided I can find the Mandalorian Iron for them. The Implants would be a much bigger boost... I did find some good crafted ones on the GTN, but the Rakata items are the best in the whole game.

So, I did that for a while. It was actually a nice period of cooling down my level of involvement in the game... I'd gotten used to playing almost any free hour I had, and now I had a nice structure where I could fly a cool space mission, do some quests on Ilum for about half an hour, do some quests on Belsavis for about an hour, and then log out.

Along the way, I finally reactivated the General Chat channel, and started paying attention to what was going on around me. The community seems to be a little bit tighter at level 50; or maybe it's just that I was finally paying attention. But I started receiving random buffs from the other people I was running into in my daily missions, and I got in the habit of returning the favor (or even doing so pre-emptively). I didn't speak in general chat, but would occasionally whisper to people with specific questions that I could answer.

Ugh, I just used the word "buff" there. Sorry about that. This is as good a point as any to get something off my chest: I'm slowly growing to appreciate MMO gameplay, but I still absolutely hate MMO terminology. It's ugly and usually nonsensical for the context. Most of it grew out of World of Warcraft, and has meanings that don't really apply to later games, but that everyone keeps on using. Part of the reason why I hate it so much, of course, is that now I'm starting to use it; I die a little inside anytime I write "melee dps for hm bt". "dps" is probably the worst offender. It's an acronym for "damage per second", which sounds like a metric, but is actually a person who performs a damage-heavy role in combat. Calling myself DPS is absurd - it's like calling a car an MPH - but I've resigned myself to doing so because it's fast and efficient and everyone else knows what it means. "Tank" is barely better; this is the leader of a group whose job is to absorb most of the abuse of a fight. In this case, I'm much less clear on the WoW etymology - I know that it comes from that game, and I know that the meaning is appropriate (a tank is a vehicle that can absorb a lot of damage), but I still don't understand why modern armored vehicles were used as shorthand in a fantasy MMO RPG. "Buff" has entered the general RPG lexicon to mean a temporary status improvement. Like... like how you buff your car, I guess? I'll stop now; I'm only tearing down the person I'm becoming.

Finally, after I got my Rakata implant, I decided to start trying flashpoints. I'd heard that the hard mode of Black Talon was the easiest of the endgame content, so when I was on the Fleet (just taking care of a few sales), I noticed that a group was forming for that flashpoint, and I whispered to the leader, asking how hard it was. I explained that I was a fairly new level 50, with decent but still beginning gear, and asked if they'd have me along. He (or maybe she, it's hard to tell, especially with some Sith) filled me in briefly on the upcoming fight: they already had a healer and a tank ready, but needed some strong DPS to beat the enrage timers. I said that I'd love to take a shot if they'd have me, and so I got one of my first invites of the game.

We had to wait a while for the tank to come, so I chatted with the others a little; one guy was curious about my crafted gear, and the other patiently filled me in on some questions about gear drops. I dueled. We waited. Finally, we boarded the shuttle to the Black Talon and were on our way.

I won't get into the story of the Black Talon here, but maybe I'll talk about combat mechanics a bit. I'm sure this is incredibly old news to anyone who played WoW for longer than the two days I did, but it's all pretty new to me, and I'm still interested in it as a new system.

So: the ultimate goal of any fight is obviously to kill the enemy before he kills you. In a group combat, the goal is to kill all the enemies before all of you die. In mechanical terms, this means reducing all your opponents' health to 0 while keeping your own health above 0.

This might sound like a simplistic problem: just attack them, and defend yourself, and maybe apply some healing when you need it. That's basically what you do in single-player SWTOR. Flashpoints, though, are especially difficult, and require more precise tactics to get through them. This means following a structured form of combat, where everyone has a role and sticks to it.

In a four-man group, the leader will be a Tank. The Tank is a player who is good at receiving damage; he or she will have a lot of hit points, a high defense rating, and equipment to mitigate damage (in SWTOR terms, they will probably be carrying a personal shield generator or a shield focus). The Tank's class gives them special abilities that can actually force enemies to attack them. That's right: your special power is to make people want to hit you! That might sound like a masochistic role, but good tanks are absolutely key to groups. In SWTOR, the Imperial classes that can tank are the Sith Juggernaut and the Bounty Hunter Powertech.

The Tank will be taking all or nearly all of the damage; they can take it more easily than the other classes, but will still eventually die. That's where the Healer comes in. The Healer has exactly one primary goal: to keep the Tank alive. The Healer doesn't shoot bad guys: he heals the Tank. If the Tank and Healer are both strong enough, those two could actually eventually beat pretty much any fight in the game: it would take a long time, since a Tank isn't particularly good at damaging enemies, but as long as the Healer can repair damage more quickly than the Tank is losing health, they can keep it up indefinitely. In SWTOR, the Imperial classes that can heal are the Operative and Sith Sorcerer.

That would lead to boring fights, and so most end-game flashpoints include a mechanic called an "Enrage Timer". Essentially, after a fight has exceeded a certain amount of time, the boss will flip out and go into crazy overdrive mode; he might start hitting for double damage, or even ten times as much damage. In order to get around this problem, you'll need to kill the boss quickly. That's where DPS comes important. A DPS (ugh, I STILL hate using that as a noun, but that's the accepted argot) has one mission: to kill the bad guys, in the right order, as quickly as possible. DPS shouldn't worry about protecting or healing themselves - the Tank will be taking all the damage, and if there are any Area of Effect attacks at play, the Healer will take care of you once the Tank is secure. A DPS should follow the Tank's lead. For low-level enemies ("trash"), DPS can spread out and clear the field quickly. For boss battles, though, all DPS should coordinate on taking down the right enemy, on time, as quickly as possible In SWTOR, most classes can DPS; the most dedicated DPS classes are the Sniper, and Sith Marauder.

I had read the equivalent of the preceding paragraphs, but I really grokked it after finishing the flashpoint. It's such an elegant system; all the mechanics of the fight are the same as what I'd learned by playing the single-player game, but there's an overarching elegant strategy to group combat that I adore. It's a neat form of specialization, that lets you focus on your task and take pride in supporting the team.

I made some really dumb mistakes along the way, but fortunately the group I was with was pretty patient and good-humored with me. Right off the bat, I charged the first boss of the encounter, got off a shiv and a laceration, looked down, saw that my health was about 5%, ran away, and died. Whoops. From then on, I scrupulously observed the cardinal rule of engagement: always give the tank time to engage first, prior to jumping in. Later on, I kind of goofed on the loot windows. I actually hadn't seen these before; when you're questing solo, any loot that anyone drops is yours; when you're in a group, though, and everyone's participating in the fight, you need some fair way of distributing the equipment you come across. In SWTOR, there are two main options: "Need" and "Greed". A player who selects "Need" on an item will always get priority over someone who chooses "Greed". If more than one player selects Need, or if everyone selects Greed, then the system rolls some random dice, and the player with the highest roll will get that equipment. It's a good system as long as everyone sticks by the social mores that uphold the system; however, as I'd read online, there's occasionally a problem of "ninja looters", where players will select "Need" on items that they don't actually need. For example, a Sith Marauder whose primary attribute is Strength might choose Need for an item that gives a bonus to Aim, with the intention of giving that item to one of his companions. That could keep a Bounty Hunter Mercenary, whose primary attribute is Aim, from being able to get that item. That's incredibly frustrating to the Mercenary, and also to the rest of the group, because if the Mercenary had gotten that item, it would have increased their performance for the rest of the flashpoint. Anyways... I had kind of over-compensated for that out of fear of being branded a ninja-looter, and so reflectively selected Greed on an item I could have used, a Tionese belt with high Cunning. Fortunately, I won the roll on this, and after absorbing some ribbing from my companions, I slipped it on and marched onward.

Since then, I've gotten better at actually taking a few seconds to examine each loot window before deciding what to click. I actually select "Pass" on most things, which seems to be a pretty rare choice, but I figure I can use whatever goodwill I can build up. Now that I'm a bit more confident in running this mission, I'll be more likely to choose Greed for items I can equip on my companions.

In the end, I came out of the flashpoint with my awesome new belt (which is better quality than anything I can make or find in single-player mode), a handful of crystals and commendations (which I can eventually exchange for other very-high-quality gear), and a thrilling sense of exhilaration. I was getting hooked. I was finding a whole other dimension to a game that I already loved. I was seeing a path forward into the endgame, and loving it.

It's been interesting to observe myself as I slowly engage with the online community of this game; I find that it's pretty much a perfect replication of the way I engage with others in real life. Ever since I was really little, I've tended to be a quiet observer of any new group. My mom likes to tell the story of how, when I was in pre-school, I would stand and watch other kids playing with blocks. The teacher came up to me and asked, "Chris, would you like to play with blocks?" I'd say, "No, I'm just watching." Then, after a few minutes, I'd quietly join the group and start playing with blocks too. Almost three decades later, that's still the way I approach life. I hang back for a bit, observe, try to figure out who's doing what, what the right etiquette and behavior is, how to get along with whatever's going on, and only then gradually insert myself into the action. Over time, I can become really engaged and enthusiastic about the activity, but there's always that tiptoeing process at the beginning.

In other MMOs, I never finished getting through that tiptoeing. I'd occasionally chat with other individuals, but I've always been reluctant to officially join a group (I'm still not in any SWTOR guild), and I never felt comfortable adventuring with strangers, especially when I wasn't sure what I had to offer. I think that what SWTOR has done amazingly well is help teach me the mechanics of group play while still indulging in my single-player predilection. Thanks to the companion system, I had already gotten used to playing a DPS role, and had seen my tank and healer companions in action. There's a world of difference between a 2-character (one human and one AI) party and a full-on four-human party, but spending weeks fighting alongside my companions had helped me see the advantages of specialized roles, and give me a chance to focus on my damage-dealing skills while not sweating as much about aspects like healing. I think that gave me a little leg up which made the transition to group play much easier than it's been in the past.

So, that's where things stand now. I'm kind of salivating at the thought of seeing the endgame flashpoint stories; for now I'm content to run the Black Talon a few more times as I get better at my role and acquire better gear. I love being able to see a clear path forward, and am looking forward to the next stage of the game.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I'm Still Not Sick Of Writing About SW:TOR

Hi! I had a couple of things I wanted to write about real quick.

First of all: Gabe from Penny Arcade had a newspost (and a few tweets) today about his frustration with a particular aspect of SW:TOR. It hasn't been bothering me nearly as much as it did him, but it is an annoyance in the game, and something I think Bioware could do much better. The root problem is how long travel can take in the game. There are a few different types of travel involved:
  • From one planet to another. This usually requires you to return to the planet's spaceport, or to take a shuttle to the planet's orbital station; then enter your private hanger; then run through the hanger to your ship; then navigate through hyperspace to the new planet (this is where the most "real" distance is traveled, and is also by far the fastest part of the trip); then exit your ship; then run back through the hanger; then run through the spaceport or locate the shuttle down to the planet's surface.
  • To another major location on the planet. The game has two forms of fast travel: "taxis" and quick travel points. There's usually a taxi near (though not necessarily at) the spaceport entrance, and several other taxi points scattered around a planet. In many cases, you must find a taxi before you can travel to that destination, but afterwards you can travel between any of the taxis on that route. Taxi travel is "fast" and safe, but not instant - you'll actually see your character flying on a shuttle between the two points. Quick Travel is a little similar in that you can only quick travel to specific points that you have previously discovered, but unlike with a taxi, quick travel is basically instant. You also can quick travel from almost anywhere, including the bottom level of a dungeon or the middle of a battlefield, as long as you are not actually in combat. Perhaps to compensate for this, you are limited to one quick travel every 30 minutes. In practice, Quick Travel is useful when you've finished up a round of questing or are done playing for the day, and either want to get your rewards or get to a safe place to log out of the game.
  • Speederbike travel. You can buy your first speeder around level 25. This provides a method of transit that's slower than taxis, but faster than walking/running. You can only use speeders when you're outside, and must generally avoid enemies with ranged attacks; however, you can go pretty much anywhere on a speeder as you could on foot. So, for example, you could take a speeder to an enemy encampment, but would probably need to disembark before you enter the camp. On some maps, though, there are certain areas that you must reach via taxi or quick travel; for example, on Tatooine you could go pretty much anywhere on your speeder bike and taxis just make the travel quicker, but on Nar Shaddaa you need to use the taxi to move between major areas.
  • Foot travel. This is the slowest way to get around, although it does get better once you learn Sprint (around level 10-15), which makes you run faster when you're out of combat. You can walk pretty much anywhere this way.

Gabe's specific complaint had to do with the end of Chapter 1, where your class quest requires you to travel between a bunch of locations. Previously in the game, you would typically go to one planet, then do a few days' worth of missions there, then move to another planet, and do another set of missions there; however, the endgame has you travel to one planet, talk to one person, then travel to another planet, fight another person, then travel to the fleet, talk to one person, etc. This involves a LOT of travel, and unfortunately, most of the time it's really boring: you're walking through huge and empty hangers, staring at loading screens, or running through a spaceport. The part that broke Gabe's patience was when he had to talk with a person on the fleet (in my case it was the Quartermaster), who literally doesn't have anything to say to you; and after that, you need to go back to your capital to start Chapter 2.

I've actually been through this twice now; it happens in between the chapters. I think I get why Bioware did it - if you're like me, and very focused on the story, it's easy to miss the social part of the game, which is after all an MMO. Almost all of the multiplayer game is focused around the Fleets: this is where the Flashpoints (and, later, Operations) are started from, and it's also where most people do their buying and selling (generally on the GTN, though I've also done some in-person trades with people looking to buy metals there). I'm pretty sure that Bioware intended for this to be kind of a "vacation" - you've just spent several weeks on the single player game, so now it's time to kick back, relax, meet some folks, try some other stuff (flash points, trading, space combat, etc.) without feeling like you're interrupting your story; and then dive back in. That said, it's really frustrating if you just want to play the story; you'd never see something similar in a single-player game. And, as Gabe pointed out, the quartermaster doesn't even pretend to be doing anything interesting or important; it would have gone a long way if he would at least tell you a funny story, or give you a mini-quest to do on the Fleet, or something.

That said, I think that this speaks towards a more general question about how to handle travel. I do get what Bioware is trying to do, and for the most part it's successful: they're making this feel like a "real" world, with real distances and real construction and real infrastructure. They're avoiding a WoW type of game where people flash in and out of existence at random; everything has a Sci-Fi explanation (even "quick travel" is supposedly accomplished by having a shuttle come and pick you up). The question, then, is how do you balance the atmosphere (which I think they do have) with fun gameplay (spending several minutes running through the same environments is not fun). Here are some suggestions I have, in no particular order.
  • Enable the use of Quick Travel from within the spaceport and from orbital stations. Right now, you can't Quick Travel until after you exit the spaceport. I'm pretty sure this is because they want you to meet certain NPCs in these places; but since you'd need to walk through the spaceport the first time you visit a planet anyways, that should be fine.
  • Allow more frequent use of Quick Travel, especially at higher ability levels. In my case, the end of my chapters involved repeated trips to Dromund Kaas, which would require exiting the spaceport, then taking a taxi, leaving, then traveling through the city to ANOTHER taxi, then traveling to Imperial Intelligence headquarters. The return trip, just going back to the spaceport, went much more quickly. I think that they should either give you another use of Quick Travel (either upon hitting a certain level or after completing a certain chapter), or reduce the cool down (same conditions). Alternately, they could introduce something equivalent to the Fleet Pass: a single-use consumable item that lets you immediately fast-travel to a quick-travel point; this could be priced at something like 500 or 1000 credits, so lower-level players would still have incentive to travel by foot and see the scenery, and players who had gone that way many times before wouldn't be forced to do so yet again.
  • Allow using speeders within hangers and spaceports. I have slightly mixed feelings about this; speeders are allowed within the fleet, which looks pretty goofy sometimes (a few players love bouncing up and down besides GTN terminals while in their speeder bike); but at a minimum, they should be usable within the hangers, which look totally fine when on the fleet. 
  • Have a form of quick-travel that returns you to your ship. This is probably the single thing that would make me most happy; I almost always log out from my ship at the end of the day, and it's a pain to get back there, especially if I need to go through an orbital station. It would also totally fit within their existing lore; when you summon companions or send them on missions, the idea is that they're taking shuttles from and to your ship. Seems like you should be allowed a shuttle, too. Like the other options, this could be another thing that gets added at a later level, but I think it would be fine to make it part of the package when you get your ship. I'd be fine with something like the 18-hour cool down that the Emergency Fleet Transfer has; in combination with other improved fast-travel options, this would greatly cut down on the annoyances that Gabe describes.
  • Connect more taxis. This is more of an annoyance, but on planets like Dromund Kaas and Belsavis, there are multiple disconnected taxi systems that require shortish but meaningless foot transfers. I think these should be linkable; look to Alderaan for an example of how to do this, where some taxis use shuttles, and others use flying birds, but they share destinations.

As long as I'm in a griping mood - and I should emphasize that I'm criticizing out of love, not out of hate - here are some other things Bioware could do that seem small but could have huge impacts.
  • Fix the broken vendors on Ilum. I just recently arrived there, and am pretty shocked that nearly two months after the game launched, there are still obvious errors (mis-labeled vendors, a vendor who doesn't sell anything, vendors in the wrong places, etc.)
  • Cut down on duplicate item clutter. There are a ton of items (I've mostly noticed this for Enhancements, but also in quest reward items and items in stores) that have the exact same stats and exact same appearance but different names. It makes shopping harder than it should be.
  • Fix the GTN. There are tons of things that could be better about this, so I'll limit myself to ten.
  1. Let us search for an item without choosing categories/subcategories first. I should be able to just search for "Xonolite" without drilling down into Crafting Materials / Underworld Trading first.
  2. Make filters actually work. Right now, if I search for "Premium" (green) items, it also returns Prototype, Artifact, and Custom. If that's the intention, then they should relabel the filter ("Minimum Quality") and give upper and lower bounds.
  3. Let us search for only Custom items. Right now, if I want to find an orange belt, I need to search for Premium Medium Armor and then click through 71 pages of results.
  4. Let us filter armor by body part. I spent a LONG time looking for a decent-looking hat; I would visit the GTN several times a week for a few weeks, and need to click through the aforementioned 71 pages of results. I should have been able to just do a filter for "Medium Armor Custom Helmets" and looked at the four items it returned.
  5. Either make an easier way to break up large stacks of items we want to sell, or else let us post a large stack for sale and allow users to purchase smaller quantities. (I might want to sell 99 Amorphous Carbonite, and nobody will want to buy all 99 at once; people will buy stacks of 20, but it's an un-fun chore to do this manually.)
  6. Quality-of-life improvement: let us preview the per-unit price when we're selling a stack of items, and/or let us enter a per-item price and have the GTN multiply it out. I can do this in my head, but it takes an extra three precious seconds.
  7. Have the GTN remember the last settings we used (both buying and selling), and automatically set those when we open it next. I always want to set my sales to 2 days, but sometimes don't remember that it switched back to 1 day until I've already entered several sales.
  8. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't have returning companions auto-shut the GTN. It's incredibly annoying, especially on top of the other issues (like if I had clicked through the first 55 pages of Medium Armor results).
  9. Give us more terminals. I would love to check the GTN more often than I do, but I'm rarely on Dromund Kaas or the Fleet unless I'm actively going there just for the GTN. Most major planets (Corellia, Belsavis, etc.) should have terminals.
  10. Make the Hutt network more accessible. I love the idea of an inter-faction GTN, but at least on my server (Lord Ieldis) it's totally dead, which I think is because (A) it takes an incredibly long time to reach the terminals, especially when you factor in traveling to the planet, running through the hanger, running through the spaceport, walking to the taxis, taking the taxi, and then driving a speeder across half a map; (B) after about level 30, there's no reason for you to go to Nar Shaddaa anyways, so nobody will go there unless they are desperately looking for a particular piece of equipment on the GTN (and after checking it a few times before, they'll get discouraged and never return). I think the Hutt GTN should be accessible from within the spaceport (either just inside or just outside the entrance), and it should be on other planets as well; the Voss Alien Enclave Market would be a great location for this (Voss is in neutral/Hutta space, and the Hutt non-aligned faction is a good fit with the non-aligned Voss).
  • Fix, or at least remove, unusable items. One of my NPC companions is occasionally offered Vibroknives when I complete a quest. Which is cool and all, except that she's the only character who can use them, and she can't equip vibroknives, so they're totally useless.
  • Fix nasty boss fights. I've complained before about the boss fight at the end of the Imperial Agent's Chapter 1 fight; I also more recently came across a show-stopping fight near the end of the Voss planet quest (though this doesn't block the class quest line, and doesn't seem to be buggy so much as it's overpowered). I'm still stunned that Bioware hasn't fixed the Imperial Agent fight yet (at least, I don't think they have - obviously, I haven't tried that fight lately, but I've been reading the patch notes and haven't seen any acknowledgment). I can understand that these fights might be hard to fix, but given the volume of complaints on the forums, I'd wish that, as an interim, Bioware would at least do something like bump down the damage or the health of these bosses as a stopgap solution until they can actually fix them.

But, just to reiterate, I've spent a ton of time in this game, and the amount of pleasure I have has far outweighed that admittedly daunting list of complaints. I recently had the pleasure of completing the Empire storyline, which has been running in parallel to the class storyline, and was utterly delighted at the conclusion. I'd assumed that the class climax was the endpoint of the story, but the rousing finale of the planetary quest may have been even more dramatic and inspiring.


The last planet you visit in Chapter 3 is Corellia. Corellia was one of the founding members of the Republic, and has some of the most advanced infrastructure and technology in the galaxy; their engineers have made major discoveries related to hyperspace travel, and some of the galaxy's largest and most powerful corporations are headquartered in Corellia. So, when the Empire and Republic finally declared war on one another, Corellia was the first planet targeted by the Empire; it's a tough, well-defended world, but also one that's crucial to the Republic, and its loss would have a devastating impact on the war's course.

Darth Decimus leads the Imperial war effort on the planet; as with many other planets, you run missions for various subordinates early on, and eventually are hand-picked by Decimus himself to lead the final assaults. Decimus is a pretty good leader; he isn't nearly as fun as Lachris, but he's a stern, imposing figure with utter confidence in his mission, who challenges his subordinates to perform at their best. Decimus, seeking to please the Emperor, has pursued a mandate of maximum results from minimum resources: he has accomplished a stunning invasion of the Republic's heartland while using only a fraction of the Empire's available troops. People like you are of great interest to Decimus, since you can affect the course of the war much more than an ordinary man or woman. (I have way too political of a mind - during this sequence, I occasionally flashed back to the Rumsfeld Doctrine that proved initially impressive and ultimately disastrous in the second Iraq war.)

The combat for this portion tends to be really fun. Several areas have groups of Imperial and Republican NPCs firing at each other; many of your missions involve directing bombers to destroy particular targets, or blowing up Corellian anti-aircraft batteries. Along the way, you support a Corellian councilor named Darbin Sull who secretly supports the Empire. He's far from admirable - he's a lazy roustabout with no morals and lots of greed - but he does have a certain roguish charm. He has cut a deal with Decimus: Darbin will feed the Empire secrets about the Corellian military operations, and in return will receive the Prime Minister post once the Empire takes over the planet. He isn't at all idealistic; he just knows that the Empire will almost certainly win in the long run, and he wants to get the best possible benefit when they do.

I didn't particularly like Darbin, but I did support him - the game gives you plenty of options to smack him around, which I refrained from engaging in. At the game's climax, Darbin helps you locate the codes necessary to break into the Green Jedi's stronghold. (The game does a lot about the relationship between the Republic and the Jedi; I'm a little curious what it looks like from the Republican point of view, but as far as the Empire is concerned, the Jedi are a quasi-independent military body that acts as the de-facto military wing of the Republic. I tend to think of them as being roughly equivalent to the middle ages Knights Templar, or maybe even the Papal armies, where the Republic is more equivalent to the Holy Roman Empire. A less charitable person might claim that the Republic is Hamas while the Jedi are Hezbollah. Bottom line: while the Empire is officially at war against the Republic, it's really the Sith and the Jedi who hate each other and whose passion is fueling the war.) The Green Jedi are an elite order of Jedi who are sworn to the defense of Corellia; after you have defeated the Republic armies on the battlefield, the Green Jedi are your last opponents.

In the stronghold, you break into the secure area, then are joined by the leader of the Imperial guards (who wears a totally sweet red uniform) and his cronies as you do battle against the Green Jedi. That was really fun. After they're defeated, the Imperial forces secure the exits while you press on into the interior. Darbin helps you get inside; he offers to help attack some more guards who are headed your way, but warns that doing so will tip his hand and might cause the Jedi to become suspicious. I had a feeling that Darbin would be useful later, so I told him to lay low, which he gladly endorsed. ("But still… I WOULD have helped out. That's the important thing. Right?")

Finally, you make your way into the Green Jedi's inner sanctum. At last you meet Arfan Ramos face to face. Ramos is the head of the Green Jedi, but the strain of Corellia's impending defeat weighs heavily on him; he loses his cherished Jedi calm and snaps at you as you move through his compound, causing him to lose face before his acolytes. Darbin and I urged Ramos to surrender peaceably. He refused. Darbin shrugged, said that he'd tried, and then threw a bomb into the middle of the Jedi. This killed a few of the Jedi defenders. Two survivors did cool Force jumps up to the mezzanine where Dr. Lokin and I were standing. We defeated those two, then I activated my stealth cloak and headed down to the plaza. I ambushed Ramos, had an exciting but not terribly difficult fight against him, and ultimately won.

This leads into the victory sequence, which was just pure joy. You meet with Decimus, where you discuss Corellia's fate. Namely: should you honor your deal with Darbin, or kill Darbin and place Corellia directly under Imperial martial law? Decimus is willing to leave this crucial choice in your hands; you've basically single-handedly won the planet for him, so he's feeling magnanimous.  I kept Darbin around, of course.

Next up comes the very impressive victory scene: you, Darth Decimus, Darbin Sull, and the surviving Corellian councilors stand triumphantly on a balcony overlooking the city's central square; down below, throngs of citizens clap and cheer for their new leaders. Decimus congratulates the planet on their admittance to the Empire and introduces Darbin. Darbin greets his people - interestingly, they seem less enthusiastic for him than they did for Decimus - and announces with Decimus that Corellia will be able to continue overseeing most of its own affairs. (This would surely have gone differently if I'd executed Darbin - I imagine that in that case, either Decimus or General Hesker would have overseen direct military rule of the planet.) Darbin personally thanked me; I had two options to put him down, but graciously deflected the compliment back to him. Since he was to be our official liason, I wanted to make sure he had the full support of both Empire and his own people; a lame duck wouldn't do anyone good. Darbin redoubled his thanks, though, saying that I was singlehandedly responsible for Corellia's freedom (I sniggered at that a little), and Decimus chimed in, asking me to address the crowd with a few words.

I had several options: one was along the lines of "Bow before the Empire's might", another "I don't do speeches." I chose the middle option, "The Empire will benefit you." This actually led to a rather stirring speech - and have I mentioned before that the voice actor for the male Imperial Agent is incredibly good? Well, he is, and I haven't given him nearly enough credit yet - in which I talked about the advantages of the Imperial "alliance." This led to the most coherent explanation I've heard yet of Imperial philosophy, once you pry through the evil Sith mumbo-jumbo. Essentially, the Empire is a meritocratic system, while the Republic is a democratic system. In the Republic, everyone is equal; in the Empire, everyone rises or falls to their deserved place. In the speech, I held myself up as an example: I was lowly born, without any family connections, and yet here I was, the recipient of the Empire's first-ever Medal of Imperial Glory, thanks to my tireless work and abundant skills. "You too," I said, "Can rise as high as you deserve within the Empire."

It's an interesting system to think about, especially when you move beyond the cartoony Sith lords and the selfless Jedi. The Republic world is kinder, and flatter, and while exceptional individuals can arise, over the long run it may tend towards mediocrity. The Imperial world is harsher, and more varied, and life can be quite wonderful for a select few and rather miserable for many more. Anyways, what I like most about this vision is that it moves beyond the excessively legacy-oriented Star Wars values system (virtually everyone in the movies is important because they're the offspring of other important or powerful people), to a value system that's different from our own but seems like it could work and sustain a society over generations.

Like I keep on saying, one of the things I like best about SW:TOR is how it can retain the single-player RPG's epic storyline, in which you, the individual player, are the crucial actor in the world. If I have one complaint about the ending, it's that they oversell it a bit - at one point, Decimus actually says a line like, "Your actions as an individual have forever shaped the course of history!" Um, yeah, but it sounds stupid when YOU say it.

There's one final coda here - Decimus declares Darbin as the new Prime Minister and orders the other councilors to bow to him. Most of them do, but one refuses, saying he'll never bow to an Imperial dog (or words to that effect). Decimus is ready to execute him and asks you to say the word; the councilor taunts you to do it. I was actually briefly tempted to do so - can we really afford to show weakness at the dawn of our reign? I eventually decided to let it go, though. "On any other day, I would have your head for that. This is a day for Corellia to celebrate, though, not to mourn. Guards, take him to prison, but do not harm him. We don't need to give Corellia any martyrs." When I heard that last line, I felt content that I'd made the right choice.


And... that's it! For Corellia, at least. I'm really glad that I went back and finished this up.

Other random notes from recent play:

I finally got enough Mandalorian Iron to make my hotrigged speeder bike. It's pretty sweet! The design looks like my level 40 custom-built speeder bike (visible in my earlier pictures), but it has a sweet red paint job and cool blue engine lights. I'll try and post a new picture later. Actually, I have a whole bunch of pictures, and I'm thinking of just tossing them into two Picasa albums (one with spoilers, one without). I'll write another post when that's available.

I'd been worried about money after switching to slicing, but I needn't have worried. All of the low-level Underworld Trading missions are cheap to run, and the Underworld Metals you get sell REALLY well on the GTN; I more than covered my leveling costs by selling them off, and I'm now sitting at 400 skill and pulling in a fair amount of Mandalorian Iron, along with plenty of Ciridium (which I irrationally love because it looks a little like Cirion). I've finally started to relax and just buy a bunch of what I want: some blue cores for SCORPIO and a blue bracer for myself from Ilum; and, just now, a bunch of purple stuff from the fleet GTN (an implant, two relics, and a high-level-if-not-technically-purple color crystal for my gun). Even after that splurge, I still have around 600k left, so I can keep running whatever missions I want without any worry.

Now that I'm at the top level, it's finally making sense for me to get more engaged in crafting. Up until now, I would generally buy each schematic when I could, and make a new set of green earpieces, armoring, and mods whenever I reached an appropriate level; I'd also make an Aim-boosting earpiece for my current companion, and whenever it was available, I would make custom spaceship parts or my bike. I'd occasionally play around with reverse-engineering my items, and would sometimes figure out how to make a better version, but it was never worthwhile to make them; the Underworld Metals were too expensive to buy, and in any case I knew they'd be obsolete after a few levels anyways. But, now it makes total sense to equip myself with the best items I can for my level. I've already been able to create purple Mods, and have gotten enough Mandalorian Iron to make... maybe five of them so far (on top of my bike and the Kuat Drive Yards Missile Magazine). I've also learned how to make blue versions of the Level 49 earpiece and armoring components, and am working to find the purple version of the earpiece. (I may eventually do the armoring as well, though I'm debating just getting the purple Level 50s from the Mission Support vendors on Belsavis and Ilum). In the future, I may also work on making purple versions of the droid parts - or at least the sensor, since SCORPIO's other items can accept my custom mods and armoring.

Incidentally, even though I skipped advanced crafting on my way up, I think that if I ever start an alt that could be a really good way to support my leveling. Since Seberin is rich and has a lot of supplies, it would be really simple to figure out how to make, say, a set of purple earpieces/mods/armorings for Level 15. If I sent those to my alt, he could keep using them for another ten levels or so and still be ahead of the green gear for that level. As long as my primary occasionally tossed him an upgrade, he (or she) should be able to level much more quickly. (Again, the benefit here is mostly that I could get the purple as soon as I'm ready to start using it, whereas my primary needed to invest time to discover how to make the purple, which he might not figure out until it was obsolete for him.)

Okay, that was excessively nerdy even for me. Sorry.

I'm currently playing through the Ilum planet quest line. Ilum is apparently a PvP world, even in PvE servers like mine, but I haven't figured out yet exactly how this works. I do know that it's nicely challenging; the first few quests were easy, but I had a really tough time collecting weapons from some Elite enemies inside a cave. It's good to see that there are still challenges out there.

After this... I might return to Corellia and do one or two Heroics that I'd skipped before, just to get the commendations for a vest I have my eye on. I may also give the Voss and Belsavis Bonus Series a shot, though I doubt that the rewards will really be worth it for me. And, who knows, maybe one of these days I'll take the plunge and start trying Flashpoints and Operations...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Master Conspirator

It is finished!

Except, of course, MMORPGs never actually finish. Still: on Friday (or was it late Thursday?), I reached level 50 in Star Wars: The Old Republic. Today, I finished my class's personal storyline. As a nice little bonus, that very last mission also granted me enough Light Side points to finally reach 10,000, putting me at Light V. I now have a set of end-game titles to pick from; I can go by "Seberin Cirion the Master Conspirator", "Seberin Cirion, Hot Shot Pilot", and "Seberin Cirion the Pure". (For most of the game, I'd gone by simply "Cipher Agent Seberin.")

It was really good. I've studiously avoided reading spoilers, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but I absolutely loved the very endgame.


Chapter III is all about tracking down the Star Cabal, the conspiracy that's responsible for the current war engulfing the Republic and Empire. Most of your interaction is actually with Hunter, an eminently hateable agent who you'd originally met as part of Ardun Kothe's SIS cell. Chapter 2 ended with him revealing that his loyalties weren't ultimately to the Republic; in Chapter 3, Keeper 2.0 has you following up on several leads related to Hunter and the Conspiracy. You're able to acquire some data that shows a heavily-encrypted meeting between members of the Conspiracy; however, a virus within the recording wipes out Keeper and the other enhanced operatives. You're left to chase some vague plans from Keeper without knowing just what they mean.

Along the way, I met the final member of my party, SCORPIO. I'm a bit surprised that it took the game this long to have a sequence where you fight an enemy, defeat them, then make them your ally; that's a beloved RPG device. Anyways... SCORPIO is your main nemesis for most of your time on Belsavis; she was created by the Star Cabal to oversee Megasecurity Ward 23. (Awesome name, by the way.) This whole part of the game was just totally awesome. Wanna guess how awesome it was? The class quest is titled "The Heist." Yep! You start off on Belsavis by springing a carefully chosen set of the planet's most talented criminals from prison. This includes an excellent slicer (hacker), a large muscled guy, an explosives expert, and a logistical genius. Posing as a fellow criminal, you convince them to help you make the big score of breaking into Megasecurity Ward 23 and stealing its data and credits. It's all wonderful. I take back the stuff I wrote earlier about how MMORPG's can't make rogues interesting to play. Anyways... at the end, your team manages to distract SCORPIO when you penetrate her vault, at which point she assumes corporeal form to defend her domain. A battle ensues; at the conclusion, as she's deactivated, you are contacted by some of the original founders of the Cabal, who have been imprisoned by their followers and give you their blessing in your attempt to chase down the Cabal. They also direct SCORPIO to assist you. She's yet another character with a wonderful, distinct personality; she shares a lot of Kaliyo's callousness towards life and aggressive amorality, but she's also profoundly curious, and more than anything else she seeks to improve herself. (This isn't exactly a moral improvement; more in the sense of "create an unlimited consciousness that will eclipse all mankind.")

Later on comes an intriguing sojourn on Voss, where you start to get an idea of the scope of the conspiracy. One of its members ingratiated himself among the Voss, and has been posthumously keeping the Voss from siding with either part of the conflict; the Cabal intends for both sides to completely wipe each other out, at which point they will be able to create a new order for the universe. The Cabal was formed in the wake of the first Hyperspace War, when the Sith and Jedi first discovered each other and began a determined plan to exterminate the other. Several people were horrified at how close that war came to not only destroying the combatants, but the galaxy itself; they came to decide that force-users were a threat to the stability of the star systems, and set in place a millenia-long plan to eliminate both the Jedi-sympathetic Republic and the Sith Empire.

The Cabal arranges the dismantling of Imperial Intelligence (!) and turns control over to the Sith (ugh). You're relieved of your spying duties and placed into the military hierarchy on Corellia, where the cold war between Sith and Imperial has finally bubbled over into a direct shooting war. What's worse, though, is that they arrest Kaliyo and throw her in jail. This sucks for many reasons. First, Kaliyo is my buddy - we go way back, even if we don't currently share a room. Secondly, Kaliyo is my bodyguard - SCORPIO was able to take over that task to some degree, but Kaliyo is just about the only person who can stay standing throughout a long and tough fight. Finally, losing Kaliyo kicks off an annoying bug in the crew management system where you can't send certain people off on missions until certain other people get back. Since that happened just when I was starting to level up my Underworld Trading skill, it felt like very poor timing. Now, there was a dialog option I didn't explore which was something like, "Can't you take someone else?" From a gameplay perspective, I should have chosen that, but from a roleplaying perspective, I was trying to play it cool and avoid making waves while I waited for an opportunity to arise.

I moved through Corellia more quickly than I do for most planets. First, I hit level 50 pretty soon after arriving, and so I no longer had much incentive to spend time on pursuits that primarily would yield extra XP. I didn't skip ALL the quests - there's some interesting story around some of them (Corellia is one of the most advanced manufacturing planets in the galaxy, and its machinery is still largely intact, so there's a great deal of struggle around industrial sabotage and jockeying for the support of large corporations like Czerka), and the side-effect of being at the end game is that the rewards those quests give are tuned for levels 48ish-50, and so are some of the best equipment you can get in the game. That said, I still have a lot of unfinished missions there that I'll probably go back to later.

There's an EXCELLENT sequence where you visit a hovering pleasure cruiser, where the 1% of Corellian society is drinking, dining, and dancing as their planet below burns. (I'm REALLY curious if that's purposeful social commentary or not, but either way, it's awesome.) Hunter arrives, incapacitates you (drugs for me, electric slicing for SCORPIO), and interrogates you. I resisted the torture for a while, then fed them false information about the status of Imperial troop movements. (The Cabal had been carefully orchestrating things so Corellia would remain a stalemate and draw in the full nations; the arrival of a large supply of Imperial forces would upset that balance, cause the Empire to quickly win the planet, and potentially become the victor in the war instead of a mutual loser.) The Cabal took the bait, and started scrambling to make corrections. I faked my own death by blowing up a commercial tower with myself in the basement. (Another terrific sequence.) In the basement, I met up again with Ardun Kothe and the surviving members of his SIS cell. They were wary, but he seemed genuinely concerned and curious about our situation. I decided to take the risk of filling him in on the whole story - Hunter's true identity, the Star Cabal, the real purpose behind the war. He was skeptical, but said that he trusted me, and let me go without incident. Another really cool note in the story - I doubt that I'll ever play through the IA storyline again (though I do appreciate that, since I could do it as a Sniper or as a medic-specified Operative, it wouldn't need to be too repetitive), but if I do, I'd be really curious to see how all the decisions I'd made would have affected the story. If I had killed Kothe in Chapter 2, would someone else have met me in the basement? If I had turned him over to Intelligence, would he have escaped, or would he still be languishing? If I'd let Watcher X escape, would he have assisted me in person as I was fighting the brainwashing, instead of just appearing as a hallucination?

Watcher 2.0 had secretly emerged from her coma and was directing my movements; together, we identified where the cabal was meeting to deal with the Corellia situation. I flew off to the rendezvous point, where I was reunited with Kaliyo - it turns out that most of Intelligence's top brass had secretly (and presumably illegally) re-formed after the agency was dissolved, so Keeper 1.0 and Keeper 2.0 had sprung Kaliyo from prison, and had her running jobs for them while I was busy on Corellia. (Kaliyo complains that the pay was lousy.) Delighted to have the gang all together again, I headed off for the final confrontation with the Cabal.

Watching them aboard their station in Null Space, we were finally able to identify some of the top members of the Cabal - corporate leaders, mercenary captains, and the like. Hunter spotted us, and the meeting broke up. I defeated a conspirator called The Prince, then chased down Hunter in search of the Black Codex - the master file that contained all the information about the Star Cabal: the names of the members, their current and past plans, and so on.

Hunter himself is pretty easy for a final boss, which I appreciated - that would be a frustrating fight to get stuck on. Afterwards, he reveals his secret - "he" is actually a "she"! Turns out that Hunter, before joining the Cabal, trained throughout the galaxy, including at the feet of the Old Man on Tatooine. She took a male disguise, since it made her job easier; the Cabal knew her real gender, but didn't care as long as she got results. And... it turns out that she was secretly in love with me all along. Which in retrospect totally makes sense - there's a very highly evolved level of banter that the two of you have always had, from that first meeting in Nar Shaddaa's casino bar through her period of being your archenemy. I said something like, "I think I always knew." And then there was a kiss. Shhhh, don't tell Temple!

(Oh, yeah... I don't think I mentioned this before, but I "married" Raina Temple. It was a ship-board ceremony, not officially registered due to our covert jobs. I really enjoyed that arc... it's very well-written and sweet without being saccharine. As a really nice [and hardly at all creepy] touch, after you get married, Temple will occasionally send you mails telling you how much she loves you and including little gifts inside.)

Wow, that derailed the climax, sorry about that...

Hunter was mortally wounded in the fight, and after revealing herself and kissing you, pulls some sort of trigger and dies. I didn't think of this at the time, but there's a strong echo of the death of Vader in Episode VI there. I then turned my attention to the Black Codex. (After first taking a minute to appreciate the room we'd fought in - Bioware's art design is absolutely stunning, and showpieces like the Star Cabal and the Voss Temple are absolute marvels that I bet 95% of the players run past without ever stopping to look.) As I'm accessing it, who walks in but... Ardun Kothe. He had secretly followed me from Corellia, figuring that if I was right about the Cabal, then (a) I'd need help, and (b) the Republic would need proof of what was happening. He was too late to help me, of course, but he still made an impassioned plea for me to turn over the Codex to the Republic. He argued that, if the Empire got ahold of it, then they would blackmail everyone onto their side and kill those who opposed them; all of the Cabal's power would be added to the Empire, and misery would result. The Republic, he said, would break up the Cabal entirely, eliminating its presence from the galaxy.

That was yet another decision screen where I was left staring at my choices for several minutes, trying to decide what to do. I had three choices. Light side: "I don't believe you." Light side: "I'll give you the Codex." Dark side: "No. [Destroy Codex.]". Well, I definitely wasn't going to destroy it. (Though, now that I think about it, WHY is that the evil choice? Evil would be installing yourself as the Cabal's leader; simply destroying the Codex is a chaotic decision, but I don't think it's necessarily bad.) Everything that I'd done throughout the game was urging me to turn down Kothe, fulfill my duty as an officer of the Empire, and turn over the Codex to my superiors. And yet... and yet... way deep down, I kind of always had wanted to secretly serve the Republic. Even when I was undercover in Chapter 2, I'd thought how fun it would be to actually be a double agent. My experiences in seeing all aspects of the Empire had shown me that, while many individual Imperials were reasonable people just trying to carry out their jobs, the Sith leaders were almost universally homicidal maniacs. I wanted an Empire led by non-Sith. In the meantime... I could have a lot of fun secretly serving the republic.

And so, I gave Kothe the codex. How crazy is that? I'm reminded yet again of Dragon Age, and all the amazingly awesome crazy stuff that game would let you do. It's great that, at the end, SW:TOR let me do something similarly nutso. Best of all, I get the feeling that this is only one of a myriad of possible outcomes. I could be serving as Darth Jadus's right hand; I could have killed Kothe; all sorts of decisions had ripple effects through the whole game, and I'm guessing that many Imperial Agent players won't even get the choice that I got. Very fun.

Afterwards, we reconvened on a ship orbiting Corellia. The mood was upbeat, if not euphoric. The Empire had tracked down all of the Cabal members we'd identified in person, and their removal would ensure that the Cabal would not be a factor for at least the remainder of the war. Keeper 1.0 had a private chat with me. He seemed skeptical when I told him that someone had stolen the Codex before I got there ("Nobody but you managed to escape, and yet somehow they managed to smuggle the codex off the base. That seems very convenient, don't you think?"), but wasn't too focused on that. Imperial Intelligence was still dissolved; Keeper 1.0 was being forced into retirement, if he was lucky, while I and the others would probably keep doing our jobs but be forced to do so outside of Imperial approval. I don't really mind - being a renegade secret agent is probably the only thing cooler than being a secret agent.


All in all, very fun! There don't seem to be any final credits or anything, which I guess makes sense - the game does want you to keep on playing, and can't make a too-convenient stopping point. I still want to finish up the planet missions on my last planet, which were pretty entertaining; after that, at a minimum I need to go back to Voss and try defeating a boss there that I couldn't beat earlier, and then I may check out Illum (assuming there's some non-PVP stuff to do there) and the bonus series on Voss and Belsavis.

Oh, and to follow up on my Underworld Trading (henceforth UWT) drama - it went much more smoothly than I had expected. I'd gotten up to about 900,000 credits before making the switch, and thanks to the rewards from my late-game quests and space missions, and some low-level metals that I started selling on the Galactic Trade Network (henceforth GTN), I finally broke the 1 million credit mark even after I started running UWT missions. Of course, I then went to visit my trainer for all my Level 50 abilities, which bumped me back down to around 550k. BUT, I'm now already back up to about 800k, so I don't think money will be an issue. High-level UWT missions are expensive, but it does look like it can be profitable, so long as I stick to metals and sell stuff on the GTN. I figure I may have two members getting Level 6 metals for me, while another two are getting Level 5 metals for sale to support my habit.

I'm not there yet, but I'm close... I'm now at around 280 skill, and have started doing the Level 5 missions (for levels up to 48). I've been running the metal missions and the gift missions; I turn around and give the gifts to my companions, and so I'm now at very high affection with all of them. I'd already reached 10,000 with Temple a few days back; we're definitely the most compatible in temperament, so I would usually bring her along whenever I was discussing missions. I just got SCORPIO up to 10,000 when I beat the very last class mission. (Even though you get SCORPIO so late, the game adjusts dialog so a choice that would be +15 approval from Kaliyo would be +102 approval from SCORPIO. Gifts affect everyone equally, but SCORPIO and Lokin were both low enough that I could give my low-level gifts to them and get at least some reaction.) Vector and Kaliyo are both very close to that, I think they're sitting around 9,500. Dr. Lokin has been really hard; he does like a good number of gifts, but it's been very hard to find conversation choices that he reacts to, positively or negatively. Still, now that I'm swimming in gifts for him (he likes Technology, Imperial and Republican Memorabilia, Military Gear, and Cultural Artifacts), even he is getting close to 9,000.

Aaaanyways... you have a higher chance to "crit" a mission (get an exceptionally good result) when your companion's affection is higher, so my hope is that once I get everyone to 10,000, I can just have them all searching for metals, and have a decent chance at finding that precious, precious Mandalorian Iron for me. Kaliyo has a +2 chance to crit on UWT missions, so I think I'll probably keep SCORPIO by my side while Kaliyo is off working in the field. Crits also have a chance at bringing in luxury fabrics, which I don't have any direct use for, but which do seem to sell decently well on the GTN (not at as high a premium as the metals, but still enough to keep me cash-positive).

Soooo, that's that. I think (and hope!) that I'll be cooling down on the amount of time I'm dedicating to the game, but I'll probably keep playing it a bit more casually for at least a while. I want to see the end-game planets and stuff, and make a few cool high-level cybertech items for my characters. I still haven't decided whether to start an alternate character; I may wait until Bioware announces more details about their "legacy" system and see if that guides my choice. So far, it's been a great game with an awesome story, and that's really all I can ask for.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Seven Squares

I keep on threatening about how I'll write just one more post about The Old Republic when I reach the "end" of the game, and I keep on dispatching these reports from the field. I apologize for my consistent inconstancy.

I've just reached Level 49, the penultimate level of the game. I think that stuff will change pretty drastically once I hit 50, which will likely happen before the weekend. After I reach 50, additional experience becomes pretty much useless; there is some "Legacy XP" system that may be cool someday but doesn't have an impact now. So, what will I be playing for? Mostly to finish the story, at least at first. I've been running ahead of my ideal level for most of the game, and it feels like that gap has widened recently; I'm currently on Voss, running missions that are labeled as being for level 44-45; I don't know how much of Voss is left, but I'm guessing that I'm about halfway done, just judging from how much of the world map I've revealed so far.

So, how does one become massively overpowered at Star Wars: The Old Republic? I haven't even been focusing on leveling up, it's just sort of happened as I play the game; I haven't even done ANY player-versus-player combat, have skipped almost all Heroics, and haven't done a single Flashpoint. Here's what's worked for me:
  1. Do every mission. These always provide a good amount of XP, geared appropriately for your level (I'm now generally earning a minimum of about 6000 XP for completing a quest, on top of what I may have earned during it).
  2. Consolidate your missions. Early in the game, I found that I was often retracing my steps: I would travel to location A, finish a  mission, return for the reward, then find another mission that required I go back to location A again. I now will finish checking for all mission-givers for an area (usually a city or outpost), then head out in a loop to visit all those mission locations before returning to report success on all of the missions, usually for a total of 3-5 quests. This has a few benefits. First, you save time since you're not retracing your steps. Second, you can often make progress on one mission while you're fulfilling another one; for example, one mission might have you killing a particular type of enemy, who happens to be guarding the objective for a second mission, so those fights are killing two birds with one stone. On a related note, I've also learned that it's better to finish up all the missions in one area before moving on to the next. For example, there's often only one or two class quests in one area, but there may be multiple stages of planet quests. If you finish your class quest and all open planet quests in area A, when you turn in those results, your class quest may tell you to go to area B, while the planet quests will have another stage (after getting your reward) where you need to go back to A again. It might seem like it's OK to go on to area B and later return to A, but in the long run it's better to finish the planet quests in area A first, because the next stages of those quests may require you to go to area B. It's better that you do AAABB than AABAB, if that makes sense.
  3. Always do a Bonus Mission when it's available. These are a little like grinding, but grinding with a cap, which I like. They usually aren't initially visible to you, but will appear when you do something related to it. For example, if you kill a Republic trooper in your quest area, the bonus quest might be something like "Kill 1/10 Republic forces (Bonus)". The amount of experience you get for this varies, but is usually about the same as what you get for completing the quest, in addition to the raw XP from the kills themselves.
  4. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS do multi-stage Bonus Quests. Looking back, that might be one of the two most important things that I've done while leveling. It took me a while to figure out how this system works, but it's actually pretty simple: it will still show up as a Bonus, but will say something like "Bonus (Stage 1): Kill 1/10 Republic forces". Here, you will usually get a good amount of XP (around 2000-2500, but in late planets as high as 6000) for each of the stages. Usually, the first stage will be killing a number of enemies; the second stage will involve items in the area (like blowing up speeders or looting supply crates); there may be additional stages for killing more powerful enemies or doing other environmental things. The last real stage is almost always to kill a boss-type enemy, usually an Elite; after this, you'll get an item that you turn in to a dropbox, which will give a MASSIVE XP reward. The one I did last night was about 24,000 XP; again, this is in addition to all the XP you get from fighting enemies and completing the earlier bonus stages.
  5. Don't let bonus missions expire. This has actually been a regularly frustrating thing for me. Most of the time, when you have a main mission and a bonus mission, you can complete the two independently. The main mission might be to talk to one person who's held captive in a cave surrounded by enemies; the bonus mission might be to kill a certain number of those enemies. I'll generally sneak my way to the main guy, only kill the enemies I need to along the way, and then kill the rest on my way out. However, every once in a while, accomplishing your mission objective will automatically end the bonus mission. This gets really frustrating if you were already at, say, 17/20 kills. Eventually, I just got in the habit of always finishing my Bonus mission prior to accomplishing the current objective on the main mission; this does slightly slow down my playthrough, but ensures a steady stream of advancement.
  6. Don't bother fighting enemies in the main world. I personally don't think it's too much fun, and although I haven't crunched the numbers, I think the XP/minute you get from this is lower than if you're focusing on accomplishing your missions. I don't go too far out of my way to avoid combat, but I regularly use stealth and my speeder to avoid enemies who aren't directly in the path of my objective.
  7. Exception to #6: I will fight solo Elite enemies who I stumble across. These generally give good rewards; the exact amount seems to be determined by your relative levels, but I usually get around 2000-2700 XP for each one. Again, I'm not sure how time-efficient it is, but these fights are more challenging and fun, so I don't mind anyways.
  8. Do the Bonus Series(es) when offered. It isn't always really obvious when they're available, especially if you're like me and don't accept or abandon Heroic quests, since you'll be used to seeing quest-givers with active quests hanging around. The first few you get are fairly obvious - when you leave Balmorra, a guy in the spaceport will suddenly have a new quest for you, which kicks off that first series. What's trickier are the later ones which are on planets you've done before; for example, Nar Shaddaa's bonus quest kicks off about 10-15 levels after you left it before. One that I almost completely missed was Alderaan's, and it was pure luck that I found that one: I had traveled back to the Fleet, and gotten mildly disoriented, and so was traveling through the PVP/Flashpoint area on my way to the Galactic Trade Network. I saw a person there who I stopped and talked to; I almost NEVER take quests on the Fleet, since they're always for Flashpoints, but for whatever reason I clicked on her, and she told me to travel to Alderaan. By this point, I was already way beyond the level they wanted, so talking to the Alderaan guy only gave me 5 XP; however, weirdly enough, the actual bonus missions themselves are several levels above the "Travel to Alderaan" mission, so I was able to get good rewards for doing those, in addition to the intrinsic rewards of a good story that got deeper into Alderaanian politics (and had some particular resonance with my companion Vector). 
  9. Finally, and probably most importantly, do your space missions. First of all, they're really fun. Yeah, they're "just" rail shooters, but they look gorgeous, and feel very Star Wars. Secondly, the amount of XP they give is pretty amazing. At any given time, there are probably a few missions you can have that are worth flying (you can replay any ones you want at any time, but ones that are gray will give trivial rewards and probably aren't worth it unless you badly want fleet commendations). Completing a flight directly will only give about 4,000 XP, but accepting the mission and then doing the flights associated with it (usually 2) will also give a substantial bonus of about 12,000 XP, in addition to a nice bunch of credits and commendations. Each flight takes a fixed amount of time, about 3-8 minutes depending on which one it is, and you can do all of them from the comfort of your ship, without any travel required. I didn't fly these every day; if I did, I would have hit 50 a while ago. Instead, I just flew them whenever I was on my ship anyways to travel to another planet; lately, I've gotten in the habit of logging out from inside my ship instead of from a cantina, since in most of the later planets the cantina is pretty close to the spaceport / orbital station anyways, so I'll fly my missions before logging out or after logging in the next day.
  10. Oh, yeah: always log out from a cantina or another safe area like your ship. The "Rested XP" you get is pretty amazing. I play this game a LOT - way more than I should - and I still always have surplus Rested XP left over when I finish at the end of a day. I think part of this is because of the way I play - Rested XP doubles the XP you get from combat, but it doesn't apply to quests, space combat, companion conversations, or other sources. Anyways... always having surplus Rested XP means that I always am getting double XP when I do fight enemies, so even the grind-y parts of the game are rewarding me richly.

I think a few other things will change once I hit 50, assuming I continue to play this character instead of quitting the game or starting an alternate character:
  1. Money will become way less important. I still remember what a big deal it was when I had to save up 25k credits to purchase my speeder license at level 25. I'm now sitting on over 700k credits. I'm sure that will take a hit once I hit 50 (the final speeder license is over 300k, and upgraded abilities are close to 30k each), but after that, I don't think I'll have much use for money at all... I mean, I'll keep some banked to handle taxi fares and such, but there won't be anything new to save up for, unless I want one of the silly vanity things (there's one or two speeders that cost 1.5 million credits, and a "VIP Wristband" that costs another million). Anyways... without a use for money, I'll have even less incentive to run missions.
  2. Crafting MIGHT become more important, at least at first. I'm a Cybertech, and have almost all custom ("orange") equipment. So, as I play the game, I'm able to craft new Mods and Armoring components that upgrade my equipment. As I play each planet, I've been collecting enough Commendations to get an upgraded Barrel for my gun and some Enhancements for my gun and armor. Early on I spent some time working on more advanced crafting, where you can reverse-engineer your items to discover better recipes; however, this really wasn't worthwhile, at least for me, since they're expensive to make (they require Underworld Metals, plus the regular mods you waste while trying to make a new version), and in a few levels, they'll be less powerful than the basic mods I can easily make at a higher level. But, now that I'm at the top of the game, it may be worth taking the time to craft Prototype ("blue") and Artifact ("purple") versions of my best equipment (Level 49 Modifications, Armoring, and Earpieces). I was also toying with the idea of making high-quality droid equipment for my last droid companion, but I think I may stick with the custom gear they already have and craft the appropriate (Aim-boosting) modifications to put in there.
One thing I've been agonizing over for the past week is deciding if, and then when, to replace Slicing with Underworld Trading. (I'm not using "agonizing" lightly; I've seriously devoted more brain cells to this decision than I have to any real-life choice I've made in the past 6 months.) Slicing has been awesome while I've been leveling up; it's provided a lot of credits for me (more from finding computers while exploring than while running slicing missions), and a good source of supplemental income (primarily by selling the missions I occasionally discover while running those same slicing missions). What's been really fun has been discovering cybertech schematics; I was able to build my own speeder bike for level 50, which was awesome, and was able to craft high-quality ship parts for Grade 2, Grade 4, and now the equivalent of Grade 6 (purple spaceship parts!). While crafting those ship parts, though, I started bumping against the ugly economic realities of Cybertech. Cybertech really should be part of a four-skill setup, while the game limits you to only three; you need Cybertech for crafting, and Scavenging to gather basic materials, and Slicing to discover high-end schematics, and Underworld Trading to get high-end materials. As long as you stick to basic ("green") items, you're fine with just the first two (since you can buy basic schematics from the Cybertech trainer); if you want to craft high-end mods, armoring, and earpieces, you'll need Underworld Trading to get the rare metals they require; and, if you want to craft high-end unique items (like the speeders and spaceship parts), you'll need Slicing to discover the schematics and Underworld Trading for the materials.

People get around this problem in a few ways. Some people coordinate with other players (guilds are apparently great for this); for example, maybe two people will take Cybertech and Scavenging, and one will take Underworld Trading and the other will take Slicing. The first person will share his metals with the second, and the second person will share his schematics with the first. It would probably be even better to partner with someone who uses Synthweaving, since they won't have any direct use for the metals at all; maybe you could work out a deal where you get a steady supply of metals, and in return you can craft high-end items for them.

Other people will take a secondary skill on an alternate character. Within the game, you can mail items between your characters, so you could start a new character whose main purpose (or an ancillary purpose) is to supply materials to your primary character. That isn't a bad idea, but I really didn't want to start a new character JUST to farm rare metals.

A third approach, which I followed for upgrading my spaceship and getting my bike, is to directly buy metals from other players. This means becoming a regular visitor of the Galactic Trade Network, which people in the game insist on continuing to call the Auction House, which apparently is what it's called in World of Warcraft. Anyways, the GTN is a place where you can buy and sell most items you find in the game; you can't sell anything you've previously worn (it's hard to get that stink out), but it's a great place to get a decent price for a rare piece of equipment you've found that your character isn't capable of using. In my case, I got in the habit of visiting the GTN once or twice a week to sell the mission discoveries I'd obtained from Slicing, and look for the rare metals I needed (Mullinine, Titanium, and Quadranium). This was often a disheartening experience. Usually, whatever I wanted wouldn't be in there. Sometimes, it would, but usually one person had cornered the market, and was charging what seemed like an outrageous price. I actually held off on the Grade 2 upgrades for a while because I thought Mullinine was so overpriced; eventually, I realized that that's just what that stuff costs, and got in the habit of snapping up what I needed whenever it was available.

That worked out OK for me, since I didn't really need all that much - this was all one-time construction, and after I had crafted one Grade 2 Ship Armor, I didn't really have any need to make another. So, getting, say, 10 of one metal was usually enough. Now, though, I'm looking at needing a large supply, ESPECIALLY if I want to try reverse-engineering my Prototypes into Artifacts, which would quickly become cost-prohibitive. So, I'm tentatively planning on the fourth approach, of dropping Slicing and picking up Underworld Trading. This seems like a really painful decision; I've built my Slicing all the way up to 400, and would need to start Underworld Trading from Level 1. However, I don't THINK it would take all that long to level it up; now that I have five companions, plus my ship droid, I can have a full four people constantly running Underworld Trading missions while I go about my business with the fifth; furthermore, since by this point in the game almost everyone loves me (I'm at 9000+ affection with three companions, 7000+ with one and 5000+ with my most recent one), I'll be able to run the missions more quickly and hopefully get better results along the way. And, since Underworld Trading also provides gifts and not just metals and silks, I can use those gifts to raise their affection still higher in a virtuous cycle. I don't know how long it would take, but... well, if my skill goes up by 1 point per mission (and there's a chance it might go up by more; I know that my other skills would do so), then I'll need to run a total of 400 missions, so that's 100 missions per companion. If it's like the other skills, the early missions will probably just be a few minutes each, gradually growing closer to 25-30 minutes at level 5-6. Eh... it may take a while, but again, it can just run in the background while I'm doing other stuff.

The big question, though, is when to pull the trigger. Slicing has become even more profitable for me lately; now that I'm on Voss, each lockbox I find while scanning computers is giving me around 1,000 credits, which adds up to a lot of free money. More importantly, I've been really hoping to find a schematic for a crafted cybertech Level 50 speeder bike; I've started purposefully running the level 49-50 Slicing missions instead of the more profitable level 41-48 missions, just because I'm hoping to find it. I think that if I do find that schematic, I'll take it as a sign and switch. If I don't find it... well, I'll see if I can buy a copy off the GTN, and maybe switch over when I leave Voss. There isn't much point in taking Slicing into the endgame, since I don't think I'll need the money for much longer.

Man, that was way longer than I thought. And, at the same time, it's a lot shorter than the internal debate I've been holding on the subject. Not all of the drama in this game comes from the amazing plot!

UPDATE 2/9: Woo-hoo, it worked! After publishing this post, I sent everyone off on new missions, and Vector came back with the schematic I had been looking for. Good job, Vector! I finished up my quests on Voss, took care of some... bureaucratic business on Dromund Kaas, then traveled to the Fleet, where I took a deep breath and dropped Slicing and learned Underworld Trading. Pro tip: the game automatically cancels any Slicing missions you're currently running if you un-learn the Slicing skill. Ah, well. The low-level Underworld Trading missions only take about 100 credits each and last about 3 minutes, so I'm looking forward to a quick level on at least getting to mid-high missions. I can't wait to start taking advantage of Kaliyo's critical success chance to get Mandalorian Iron...

Furry Curry

I finished FLCL! I have no idea what I saw!

I think anyone who has ever complained that anime is strange and doesn't make sense should watch FLCL. This show makes Neon Genesis Evangelion look like Bob The Builder.

Every weird show is weird in its own way. FLCL doesn't have any of the subtlety and sinister undertones of Serial Experiments Lain; all of FLCL's strangeness is hurled aggressively at the viewer, shouting and stomping and calling attention to itself. FLCL doesn't have the artistic meanderings of Paranoia Agent; it actually sticks to a rather small cast of characters and the show's tone is, um, consistently bizarre in each episode.

Let's get the mechanics out of the way before I dive into spoilers. There are only six episodes, so there's little excuse to not watch this. I watched the first episode subtitled, then heard that the English dub was actually good, and watched the dubbed version for the last five episodes. I slightly preferred the dub, which is pretty rare for me; Cowboy Bebop is the only other anime I can think of right off hand where that was the case.

And the genre? Oh, it's just your standard action comedy drama sports high-school romance spy anime, featuring giant flying fighting robots.


I'm completely inadequate to describe what goes on in this show. I mean, I can summarize the action without too much trouble. There's an attractive female alien who rides a Vespa and hits people on the head with her Rickenbacker bass guitar; the young teenage boy whose head she hits gets a bump, and that bump grows into a horn, and then giant robots burst out of the horn and start fighting the alien and/or each other. That's the first episode. Things get a bit weirder after that.

It's a very loud show, and a very kinetic show. "Lain" had almost no dialog at all, and what little there was was usually whispered or typed; the difficulty there was getting enough information to piece together what was happening. In FLCL, the characters regularly yell at each other, and one guy (with pretty impressive eyebrows) surfaces in the second half of the series, apparently with the main purpose of providing exposition. We have lots of information, but it just doesn't cohere together.

And then there's the subtext. Oh, man, the subtext. I've been peeking at the AV Club's reviews of these episodes; I'd watched the first two episodes late last year, and got caught back up so I could be more or less in sync with the TV Club's view-through of the series. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I'd missed out on a ton of the sexual innuendo and metaphor in the show. I say "embarrassed" because, after having seen the first two episodes and not thought about the symbolism, when I was watching the remaining episodes I realized that almost everything is symbolism. That isn't much of an exaggeration. Particularly in the baseball episode, seemingly every line of dialog and every image on the screen has a not-at-all-subtle reference in human anatomy.

I think part of the reason I missed all the undertones was because the overtones are so pronounced. Or, to put it another way, because so much of the show openly talks about sexual matters, it didn't really occur to me that it might NOT be openly talking about some sexual matters. The first episode includes an amazing showpiece of anime, where the boy's... father and grandfather, maybe (I'm still a bit unclear on how everyone is related) eat dinner with him and the alien. The screen shifts from anime into a manga format, and a hilarious, perverted, wildly kinetic series of panels track the discussion, which does as much as anything to explain to show's title. Fooling around... fooly cooly... FLCL... Anyways, when you've got THAT thrown right at your face, you aren't necessarily going to spend a ton of time thinking about the horn growing out of Naota's head.

The stuff about sexuality and puberty is big enough that I'm tempted to say that it's the main point of FLCL, but I won't say that it explains everything. There's a ton going on there, and the revelations of the last few episodes (N.O. Channels, the Pirate King, Medical Mechanical, etc.), seem to have their own mythologies that are orthogonal to the story of Naoto maturing (emotionally and physically).


It looks like there are reams of ideas that have been written about FLCL, and I'll probably peruse some of them to see what the consensus is to answer the question, "What the heck was THAT?!" I've also really enjoyed the thoughtful reviews and discussion of the show at the AV Club; I mostly avoided the comments as I was watching the show, to avoid getting too spoiled for future episodes, but I'll likely dive back in when I have time and follow what looks to be a very spirited set of discussions.

I can't really rank anime shows, but I do have mental categories for them: "Must Watch," "Should Watch," "Can Watch," and "Don't Watch". FLCL floats somewhere between the first two buckets: it's so audacious and so amazing than it's well worth checking out, even though I suspect that many people won't care for it too much.