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...

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