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...

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