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.

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