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.

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