Saturday, January 05, 2019

The Hutt Cartel Also Rises

I've finally finished a major chunk of brand-"new" (post-launch) content for Star Wars: The Old Republic. This post covers Trel'ves's progress through the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion, including the various side-quests and other content associated with it, up through the Prelude to Shadow of Revan.

But before hitting plot and content, some technical (boring) details:

This game is made by BioWare, which means it's published by EA, which means it is infuriatingly difficult to take in-game screenshots. It actually has a dedicated screenshot key, but it seems to only work about 4% of the time, and never during cut-scenes, which are the ones I actually want to capture. There's no in-game feedback, so it isn't until after I finish, say, a 1-hour session that I'll open up the official Screenshots folder and find that it holds only 2 pictures instead of the 40+ I expected.

I've come to discover that the best way to run EA games is through Steam, which is dumb but at least lets me use Steam's infinitely more reliable and convenient screenshot capture utility. At first, though, this didn't work for me: I wasn't able to access the Steam Overlay or any associated utilities even after adding SWTOR to my library and opening from there. After some digging, I eventually discovered that this was because SWTOR requires you to run in administrator mode, which is also why you get that annoying permission prompt each and every time you open it. (Why does it require Administrator Mode? Excellent question! And one that nobody seems to know the answer to! The official answer, dating back to the 2011 launch, is that it's because the game needs to be able to patch itself. But that seems incredibly wrong to me. I mean, Steam itself is self-patching, and can run in user mode; Lord of the Rings Online is self-patching, and can run in user mode.) The solution? Launch Steam in administrator mode, then open SWTOR from within Steam. And finally! Screenshots!

This was also the first time I've subscribed to the game since my original run in the pre-Free-to-Play days, and I thought I'd note what that experience looks like now.

First of all, if you spend any time with SWTOR stuff online, you'll see lots of referral links. BioWare runs a program where subscribers can refer non-subscribers to the game, and both of them get some rewards. You can still use a code if you were previously a subscriber, as long as it hasn't been in the last few months. The program works a little differently from what I had thought, based on what I'd read online: I was under the impression that you had to actually subscribe to receive the benefits. Nope! You essentially get a 7-day Subscriber-lite trial. You can do this without entering any credit card info or other payment stuff. During this time, you are essentially a Subscriber. This carries a lot of benefits, but the big ones for me were:
  • No credit limit. You'll receive all credits currently in escrow, and can accumulate and spend unlimited in-game money.
  • Removes weekly limit on Space Missions. You can fly as much as you like.
  • Six quickbars.
  • More inventory space.
  • Unlimited crew skills and simultaneous crew missions.
  • Free and unlimited Medical Probes (revivals after dying in combat).
The relevant things you don't get are:
  • Higher level cap. (Will still be 50 if you haven't previously subbed.)
  • Access to expansions.
 But it's still really good! The credit limit thing is particularly nice; there are quite a few Legacy unlocks that cost more than the 350k non-subscriber credit limit, as well as a few pricey items like certain housing and speeders, as well as Galactic Trade Network auctions. I'd previously thought that all that stuff would be out-of-bounds for a non-subscriber, but now it looks to me like every couple of months you could use one of those codes, do all your shopping with the credits you've accumulated during that time, then lapse without ever subscribing.

If you do subscribe within 14 days of using the code, your referrer gets a benefit (probably Cartel Coins?). That's a 7-day grace period after the end of psuedo-subscriber status. There are tons of codes out there; I used one from Swtorista, who has created some really great non-spoilery guides for solo players that have helped me out during my run.

When you do subscribe, the best thing is probably to set up a monthly recurring subscription, then immediately cancel it. This gives you all the subscriber benefits, including permanently unlocking the expansion story content and the current level cap. You'll continue to get all the subscriber perks through the end of the month. It's all very easy to do online, no need to contact support or anything like that.

One other minor thing that I had misunderstood: Based on information I'd previously read, I was under the impression that, like excess credits, excess XP was saved, and after you subscribed you would automatically advance to your new level. Nope! All the XP I gained while a non-subscriber at level 50 is lost. Which is totally not a big deal at all - as always, SWTOR is overly generous with XP grants, and I ended the expansion (which is supposed to be for levels 51-55) at level 67, without any grinding or multiplayer or operations or multiplayer flashpoints or space missions or anything. But if you do care about that, it might be worth doing your one-month subscription starting at level 50 and not at the end of the F2P story content.

Okay! I think that's it for nuts and bolts, bytes and dollars. Now into the expansion proper.

MINI SPOILERS (for RotHC, MAJOR for the base game)

A whole bunch of stuff gets unlocked with this expansion: new areas, flashpoints, operations, side-quests, game mechanics, and so on. The single biggest addition is probably Makeb, the planet where most of the story missions take place. This is where the titular Hutt Cartel flexes its muscles: Makeb has been independent for some time, has entered into disadvantageous trade agreements with the Hutts, the Hutts (well, at least some of them) are recklessly industrializing and mining the planet's core, and you are called in to try and sort out the planet's problems and bring them into your faction's fold.

I was particularly pleased at how the game acknowledges your character's elevated stature. It's tempting for expansions and sequels to hit the reset button and push you into a new culture where nobody knows or cares who you are. Here, though, you've already accomplished great things and are recognized throughout the galaxy, and you are acknowledged as an important asset of the Republic war effort. It's kind of nice to be in that position, where characters will thank you for paying attention to their problems while they worry that they might be keeping you from grander conflicts. It can be tricky to have a high-power campaign where the stakes are still believable, and they did a great job at pulling that off.

The actual plot is pretty interesting, I'd say roughly on par with one of the original planetary arcs like Alderaan or Voss. There are some cool layers of plots to dig through, a wide range of minor and major characters, some distinctive cultural elements. There don't appear to be major branching plot lines within the arc, but you get quite a few Light Side / Dark Side decisions along the way, and a significant choice at the end. From a lore perspective, I'm always interested to see corporations depicted within Star Wars; the big players like Czerka have cropped up in the past (and make a bigger appearance later in the expansion), but here we get to see some slightly-smaller-scale businesses, including the individuals who run them. The game doesn't appear to have much of an appetite for critically examining capitalism, which is totally fine, as that's never really been a part of the Star Wars DNA (and is also one of the reasons why The Last Jedi was so nicely shocking). At the very least it's cool to have some flavor outside of the normal lightsabers-and-blasters-and-robes deal, and it does give a venue for you the player (not necessarily you the character) to question why the galaxy is the way it is.

At the time of its release, Rise of the Hutt Cartel might have been most anticipated due to its delivery of long-anticipated same-gender romance arcs, or SGRAs. I remember there being a lot of drama around this at the time of the game's initial launch. By this point, BioWare had cemented a reputation as an LGBT-friendly company with a commitment to writing diverse characters, and quite a few players were understandably bummed that all of the romances in the game (a total of nineteen!) were exclusively heterosexual. This led into one of the predictably tedious fandom "debates", with a minority arguing that gay people don't exist in the Star Wars universe, and more pointing out that KOTOR already had a lesbian romance with Juhani. The Austin studio seemed much more reserved on the issue than the Edmonton (Dragon Age / Mass Effect), but there were some vague promises that those kind of relationships would appear in the future.

At the time I'd been curious if they would do this by editing and expanding existing characters; for example, it seemed odd that female Imperial Agents can't romance Kaliyo, who is canonically bisexual. Instead, BioWare opted to add SGRAs for future characters, the first of which are introduced here. That's a minor bummer, as players might need to play through a significant amount of the game before being able to start that content, but I suspect it's a lot simpler and less risky to do this than to mess with stuff already in the game.

Up until this point, Trel'ves's only romance option had been the cocky and insufferable Doc, and it was kinda nice to start a little something with Lemda, the daughter of a wealthy CEO and a geologist who has been researching the earthquakes wracking Makeb. The "romance" is very tame: You get a couple of [Flirt] prompts over time, and if you do it often enough, there's a quick but fairly sweet kiss between you two. It's all rather light, but then again, so are the standard romances for class characters: again, this is probably in keeping with Star Wars' lighter tone, and they are firmly PG connections, as opposed to the more PG-13/R ones you can see in the M-rated BioWare games. Unlike the companion romances, though, Lemba purely lives on Makeb: she'll never travel with your party or hang out on your ship or whatever. Still better than nothing!

Oh: Also worth mentioning here that Makeb is gorgeous, one of the prettiest planets in a game willed with pretty planets. Particularly after the stark and cold beauty of Ilum, I really enjoyed spending time in such a lush and verdant world.

While Makeb is the single biggest element of the expansion, it probably accounts for less than half of all the new content unlocked by it. The remaining elements include both new content set on old worlds, and smaller brand-new areas and missions. The first of those are two new game modes kicked off from Coruscant, Seeker Droid searches and Macrobinocular landmark identification.

Seeker Droids are D U L L. I ran into something similar while searching for HK-51 droid parts, and this is even worse. The idea is that you travel to a planet, then find a zone within that planet, then start searching it for content. There's usually a huge area to search, each search takes, I dunno, maybe 10 seconds or so. The idea is that you get feedback over time so you can gradually narrow in on the right location, but that never seemed to work properly for me, even while using consumables that are supposed to make it more accurate. Once you finally find it, you're done, and move on to the next planet.

Macrobinoculars were a lot more fun. You travel to an area, pull out your binoculars (think of the ones Luke used to observe sandpeople in A New Hope), and pan them across the landscape looking for a target. Part of what's cool about this is finding good vantage points: the target is shown on your map, but you might be able to actually spot it from much further away if you find good sightlines. Some targets are easier to find than others, but the hardest of them are still far less frustrating than the seeker droids.

What finally crushed my spirit, though, was the way that both of these quests eventually lead into flashpoints that cannot be completed by solo players: they require a full 4-person Flashpoint team. Some of the new Flashpoints have been rebalanced for solo players, but not those ones. I knew that going in, thanks to Swtorista's guide, but it was still extremely disappointing. I'm pretty sure that they're designed as on-ramps for group content: solo players like me will get as far as they can, then be forced to join a group, then discover that they like multiplayer stuff after all and start running operations and become subscribers. But, nah. What's especially annoying about these is that the underlying quests themselves as incredibly solo-oriented: you're basically being a tourist, going to a place and looking at a thing, which is the least group-incentivized activity in the game.

It was at this point that I actually decided I'd stop playing. My initial plan had been to sub and then play all the way through to the current endgame, but after spending so much time on those missions and then hitting a wall I'd had enough. I think the final straw came when I attempted one of the Macrobinocular-linked Flashpoints, finally completed a very long and unfun platforming section (yet another game mechanic that SWTOR technically does but does not do especially well), then faced the boss, who, during a very long and challenging battle, knocked me off the edge of the platform and auto-killed me. I realized I was no longer having fun, and hadn't had fun for a while, so I resolved to wrap up the other Hutt Cartel stuff and stop playing as soon as my subscription ran out.

But that left three other elements to check out, and fortunately each was better than the one before. CZ-198 was very small, more of a daily area like Section X than anything, but it still felt nice to actually do something again, and it didn't overstay its welcome. Then came Oricon, which was actually quite cool. It had a nicely ominous atmosphere, some deep lore, good cut-scenes and a couple of vivid characters. The plot here deals with a group of ancient Sith known as the Dread Masters, who have become another rising faction; on Oricon, they are using their immense telepathic powers to project madness and despair into the minds of their foes, including the Jedi and Republic troopers attempting to establish an outpost here. This planet is dramatic: volcanic, with lots of flowing lava and tall, rough rock pillars. Once again the story culminates in group content not available to solo-ers, but this was another place where I felt more or less satisfied by the missions that were available to me.

The last part was the best: the Prologue to Shadow of Revan. Somewhat like the False Emperor arc at the end of the original game, here we have a set of Flashpoints that link together to tell a single story. This is where I absolutely have the most fun in SWTOR. They are relatively quick, fairly linear, the combat is challenging, boss fights have unique mechanics, you can see some cool cut-scenes, there are a handful of decisions to make, the stakes feel high, the loot is all good. This new arc depicts a bold plan to destroy the Sith Academy on Korriban, which eventually segues into a conspiratorial plot that shifts attention beyond the Republic and Empire, shines additional light on the Infinite Empire, and ends with the dramatic reappearance of Revan himself.

As if that wasn't enough, it also introduces still more SGRAs. The one intriguing me is Lana (LANA!!!!), a rogue Sith Lord who becomes an improbable ally. You only meet her shortly before the end of the expansion, so there isn't enough time to get too far along the arc, but I'm already intrigued by the few [Flirt]s there so far. I now think that this is probably the single best way to keep players engaged and convince them to subscribe as soon as a new expansion is released: tease them with the preview of an upcoming romance. Hey, we're suckers like that! (And, as a side note, this is also why I am still uninterested in Anthem.)


As noted above, I'm suspending my planned full playthrough of SWTOR: I want to get to some of the shiny new games populating my Steam queue, and I've been playing this for a long time. That said, the last few missions of Rise of the Hutt Cartel reminded me of just how much fun this game can be when it's firing on all cylinders, so I still would like to come back. I don't think I can wait for too long, though... more so than many other games, late-stage MMOs require muscle-memory-memorization of tons of hotkeys and macros and such. The few times I've loaded up Seberin, my original agent from 2011, I can barely move him at all because I'd optimized his commands so much that none of the standard buttons do what I now expect. But anyways, I remain impressed at the sheer scope and ambition of MMOs like this, and am at least somewhat curious about the plot arcs currently underway. Despite my griping, I do appreciate the efforts BioWare has made to make the game more solo-friendly, and I feel reasonably confident that I'll enjoy what lies ahead if and when I finally return.

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