Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Mellow Yellow: SW:TOR

Looking back at my flurry of First Impressions posts, I'm conscious I haven't given a clear account of my moment by moment play in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I have said, several times, that I'm enjoying the experience, that I'm having fun, and that I've been following the Class Story while leveling up, but beyond that it's all been a bit vague.

The simple truth is that I've been doing pretty much what I'd do in any new MMORPG. I've been wandering about, looking at stuff, taking lots of photos and doing odd jobs for anyone who'll pay me. Most of those jobs involve murdering someone, stealing something or blowing something up. The basic sociopath's holiday in other words, something we've all come to know, love and not really think about too much, for very good reasons.

This, supposedly, is not what I ought to be doing. Although I've been trying to stay away from Guides and How-Tos and Walkthroughs, it's been impossible to avoid picking up on the general assumption that what every new player wants to be doing is their Class Story. That, it seems, is what the game is best at and that is where it shines. Everybody says so. The other MMORPG stuff, so far as it still exists at all, is just so much legacy baggage, best avoided.

It's not that I've been avoiding my Class Story. I've been following it, on and off.  The Scoundrel, one of the Smuggler's two sub-classes, has one of the better ones, or so I'm led to believe. And it is quite good in its pulp-noir-lite way. It may, of course, get much better. I would guess I'm about halfway through, since the intended level of the Nar Shaddaa stage, which is where I am now, is mid-to-late 20s.

Then there are the Planetary Story Arcs. Even after googling, I am somewhat unclear on whether every planet has these. I don't think starter planet Ord Mantell had one but the second planet, Taris does and I've completed it.

I liked Taris. I thought it was much, much more visually appealing than ugly Ord Mantell. Also way more atmospheric. The backstory tells of a planetary civilization that was bombed into the stone age three hundred years ago. Over the passing centuries nature has reclaimed the ruins. I arrived just as recovery operations had finally begun.

I love ruins. I spend a good proportion of my vacation time wandering around the crumbling remains of long-vanished civilizations. If I can get inside a contemporary structure that's in the process of falling back into its component parts, overrun with vines and turning green, so much better. Taris pushed my buttons.

Okay, it is a tad yellow. And the TOR devs are really frugal with their assets. I'm not sure I've played another AAA MMORPG that reused quite so many structural building blocks, quite so often, with quite so few individual, hand-made touches to personalize the scene. Still, it gets the job done.

As an explorer archetype I wanted to see everything, even if a lot of it did look much the same. I also wanted to talk to everyone who'd talk to me and do whatever they wanted me to do because I'm nosy like that. Thanks to Tyler's tip in the comments I have the map widget switched on to show me every possible Mission-giver. Turns out there are a lot of them.

I'm not sure exactly how long I was on Taris but it seemd like a long time. Many hours. I'm not normally one for zone completion for reasons of achievement alone but I do hate to see unexplored areas on the map. On Taris it seemed like every time I thought I'd been everywhere, some new block of hexes would appear and I'd have to go there and open them up.

There were Missions in all sorts of obscure camps and corners. I lost track of which ones belonged to what sequence very early on, which turned out to be my undoing. As I learned, too late, Taris has a "Bonus" series of Planetary Arc missions, which you are supposed to do after you've completed the original sequence. The idea is that you come back to the planet sometime later and find out how the people you helped are getting on with taming the wilderness.

Unfortunately, whoever designed the missions neglected to script them in such a way that you can't take them out of order. They also flagged the Bonus series with the word "Bonus", which might have helped if the game didn't already use "Bonus" as a flag for an entirely different sort of mission, the ones you get all the time, whenever you kill anything, which ask you to kill more of the same.

After a frustrating few tries to get a particularly recalcitrant NPC to talk to me I googled and found that I was bugged. As countless others have been. Since 2012. There's no fix coming. I just have to suck it up and forget about it.

TOR is a disturbingly buggy game for its age and provenance. In my first few days I've been bugged in various ways at least four or five times, a couple, like this one, quite seriously. It does add to the underlying sense that you're pretty much on your own if you want to hang around in areas that have outlived their usefulness. Especially if you also insist on freeloading. Well, what can you expect?

It's a shame because down in steerage class TOR makes for a pretty good MMORPG experience. Forget the Fourth Pillar and the Big Story. There's a ton of fun to be had, playing just like it was any other MMORPG.

Take the Non-Story Missions; they're solid. If you like regular MMORPG questing as popularized by World of Warcraft, you're in safe, if familiar hands. So far I haven't run across an escort quest but all the other old favorites are there, waiting for you to sign up.

Execution is endearingly old school, too. Sometimes you get a widget to click on the Mission Tracker, other times you have to open your Inventory and find the item in your Mission Tab. Often you have to click a glowy blue thing in the world or kill mobs for drops. Once in a while you just have to get to the right marker on the map.

I've never been sure whether MMORPGs are like this because a bunch of different designers work on the same zone and all use their favorite methods or if it's a single designer trying to keep things fresh. Either way, I prefer questing with this minor note of chaos. Keeps me engaged.

As well as traditional questing, TOR offers a number of other mainstream genre staples. Bosses/Rare Spawns/Nameds - call them what you will - they pop up here and there. Naming conventions and nameplates give strong confirmation but I found I could usually spot them visually (they tend to look bigger or meaner or just slightly out of place), something I always take as a principle of good design. Show, don't tell.

And they have drops, as they should. I think. I couldn't be sure how much was random luck and how much was Boss Loot Table without killing the same ones a few times, which I never managed to do. I never missed killing one when I saw it, though. I love a good rare spawn, even if it's not actually all that rare.

There are also plenty of Chests to open, sometimes right behind the Named that's guarding it. And there's a chance to get good loot from any random mob. I've had two or three orange drops from non-entity rakghouls or pirates.

All of this is sweet music to my traditionalist ears. These are all classic MMORPG systems of which I strongly approve and which feature all too infrequently in more modern games. *cough* Guild Wars 2 *cough*.

I spent much of yesterday criss-crossing Taris, cleaning up the neighborhood for truth, justice and credits. Mostly credits, if I'm honest. Money hunger notwithstanding, my Scoundrel now leans so far into the light you can see her teeth glow through the back of her head. I'm going with it. I'm told (by Tyler again) that it doesn't matter much anyway.

When I finally had no more regular Missions in my journal I turned to Heroics. The wiki describes Heroic Missions as "missions with a slightly greater difficulty than the standard missions on a select world".  If they're flagged "2+", as all mine were, they're intended for two players but at TOR's current degraded levels of difficulty my Scoundrel and her Companion had no trouble.

Except once. The very first Heroic Mission on Taris, I somehow contrived to get my character and Corso killed. It's the first and only combat death I've had in 36 levels and it was entirely down to overconfidence, the game having trained me to treat every mob as a joke.

What happened was entirely avoidable. I was waling away on an Elite Nekghoul, when I noticed Corso wasn't healing much any more. For the first time ever I looked at his health bar and saw he was under fifty percent. He seemed to have his hands full keeping himself alive, so I backed up to do something to help him and promptly aggroed another Elite and his pals, who were lurking just out of sight around a corner.

Corso went down first, leaving me, with only my own limited heals, to take down two Elites and about six or so grunts. I got through the first Elite and a few of his friends but it was clear I wasn't going to make it. If I'd had a clue where the exit was I might have made a run for it but I didn't. I chose to stand and fall where I was.

It was the annoying run back (Taris is very hard to navigate with all the fallen buildings blocking obvious routes) more than the death itself that convinced me to pay more attention. I completed the rest of the Heroics without incident.

There were a lot of them. At least half a dozen. Some were in instances, some outdoors. All the Heroic Missions come with a "Warp to Entrance" so you can do them like shelling peas, provided you don't die and have to run back. They all reward two pieces of Blue quality armor. I got a lot of upgrades.

I thought the Heroics were fun. More fun than most similar systems I've used in other MMORPGs, because they don't use re-cycled dungeons that take too long to finish. I was in and out of most of these Heroics in ten or fifteen minutes, which felt about right. They also showed me some places on the map I hadn't discovered on my own. I tend to avoid this kind of content in most MMORPGs. Here I can imagine seeking it out.

With the last Heroic over I headed back to the Spaceport and my ship. Next stop Nar Shadaa. The name rang a bell although I couldn't have said why. Turns out it's Space Vegas.

After the supermarket car park ambience of Ord Mantell and the "any color you like so long as it's yellow" tone poem that is Taris, Nar Shadaa's neon onslaught came as an eye-opener in more ways than one. I do love a lightshow but until I opened the bay door and stepped outside I hadn't realized how much I'd missed real color.

It's evident that TOR uses its planets in the way fantasy MMORPGS use their zones. Logic suggests a planet might have more than a single biome but game logic disagrees. It's early days on Nar Shadaa but I'll be astonished if it isn't bright lights and dancing girls all the way.

So far I've rigged some bikes to crash, haggled with a Hutt and killed an inordinate amount of gang members. It's fortunate I'm not hung up on authenticity. Or ethics. I do find the sheer prevelance - and acceptance - of wholesale mass murder as the first and only solution to even the most trivial problem rather harder to handwave away in a high-tech, sceince fiction setting than a backwater, quasi-medieval fantasy world.

It occurs to me that The Purge franchise might make a particularly good I.P. for an MMO. Possibly not so much an MMORPG, where we do at least like to cling to some kind of fig-leaf of morality to cover our self-indulgent excesses, providing we're not flat-out roleplaying mustachio-twirling EVIL, of course. On which thought, and getting back to TOR, it occurs to me how curious it is that no amount of random, unprovoked killing can dent your credentials as a flag-waver for The Light. Just don't ask for money up front and your halo will never tarnish.

Leveling speed has slowed considerably. I was expecting to hit 50 before the weekend but now I'm not sure I'll make it. May be if I burned through the Class Story and kept to the rails I'd get there sooner but contrary to most of the advice I've seen I don't think that's a good plan.

BioWare made SW:TOR at the very height of the post-WoW boom. They wanted to bring their own, trademark stamp to the genre with the emphasis on story, but they also tried to catch the same magic everyone else was trying to bottle around then.

Based on what remains, I don't think they gave it a bad shot. The current leveling gameplay of TOR may be strongly watered down from what was, according many accounts, a fiddly, slow-paced, old-fashioned trudge back at launch but there's a very solid MMORPG in there somewhere, even now.

It would be a shame to miss it and I'm not going to.


  1. If you have played the Jedi Knight series you know Nar Shaddaa from there. I remembered it quite well and was looking forward to see it in TOR. It didn't disappoint much, just the rather restricted and on-rails nature all the city-planets in the game have was a bit of a bummer. In Jedi Outcast I walked and jumped over narrow ledges and bottomless pits while being shot at. Typical, heroic Star Wars stuff, one might say. Here, not so much.

    They got the visuals down pretty well though, and I quite liked most of the stories too if I remember correctly.

    1. TOR isn't terrible for off-road exploring but it also clearly isn't designed for it. You can scramble up slopes to an extent and there aren't many invisible walls. If you go off the edge of the playable area, though, as I did trying to slide down a cliff, the game just kills you and sends you to spawn. Also jumping is very weird. You don;t seem to generate any forward motion, which makes leaping chasms impossible, even when they are only about six feet across.

    2. Yeah, especially when coming from GW2 the jumping here isn't that great.
      Wait until you start to hunt the harder to get to Datacrons... ;-)

  2. Since I started playing about 10 days ago, there's been a 200% exp buff (maybe only for subscribers? I bought a starter pack that came with 60 days of sub time) and I thought that was the new normal, but last night I noticed it was gone and someone told me that was an event. So my leveling has slowed down too, but I did get to level 50 just as I was leaving Nar Shadda, which seems crazy to me!

    Also, it has been a LONG time since I first played the game, but I think a lot of the non-aggro "Yellow named" enemies used to all be aggro which made getting around a little more tedious. I'm not 100% sure on that, but I seem to remember it being that way.

    1. I haven't figured the xp out yet. As a F2P player I *think* I had the same xp as a subbed player up to Level 20, when I got a message saying it had been reduced and I could get better xp if I subscribed. By then, though, I also had the 200% event buff running, which the mouseover suggested did apply to me. I also keep getting 25% bonus xp boosts as rewards but the tool tip says they don't stack with any other boosts so I haven't used them while the event xp is on - not that I wanted to speed my xp up anyway.

      All told, I really have no idea what my base xp is right now, nor how far above that I'm boosted. I've only played for about 90 minutes today so far. I dinged 37. I'll try and keep an eye on how long it takes to get to 40.

  3. My advice would be to savor the low level game, including the planetary arcs and other side stories . . . if you are enjoying them. The class stories are the part of the low level game that will be completely new to you on alts, and also tend to be the most solid story lines in general (but certainly not always, there are some very good side quests). Because of that, after levelling up one or two characters vets generally don't want to fool with anything but the class stories on subsequent alts.

    However, contrary to all the advice I've seen out there for new players, I think a truly new player is doing themselves a disservice if they ignore all the side quests. The content up through the Shadow of Revan has a similar style to it, with planets to explore and stories to uncover. If you enjoy that, milk it for all that it’s worth.

    The content after that, Knights of the Eternal Throne for example, has a much more restricted (but arguably more cinematic) feel to it. Instead of planets to explore you get corridors with storylines that unfold as you progress through them, and there are no side quests to speak of (save for content designed for you to grind on a level capped character). You may or may not like that part of the game as much, but if you enjoying the style of the low level game I see no reason to be in a rush to the get to the newer content. The low level game will only feel this fresh and full of possibilities once.

    1. Yes, I figured as much. I'm guessing you can have two bites at the cherry as far as leveling up outside of the story goes, with the two factions supposedly having different dialog and so on in the side quests, but other than that you'd hardly want to go through it eight times!

      That's not much different from most post-WoW MMORPGs, though. The days of adding more and more low-middle level areas and content year on year would have been pretty much over by the time TOR launched. I think Vanguard was probably the last MMO I played where you could level up multiple characters and not duplicate any content at all until quite close to the cap.

    2. I've levelled up a dozen or so characters through the original "level 50 max" content. You get an achievement and a shiny character portrait thing for doing one each of the 8 base archetypes. There are subtle differences in dialog even in the standard world quests, some gender based, a few light/dark alignment and a handful based on your race. Each world is quite different when played through on republic or imperial though some are more mirrored than others. I remember Hoth being quite similar but Taris was quite different Imp vs Rep. There are also lots of links between characters and events that have their consequences on the opposing side, and several of the companions have links to other npcs on either faction as well. I think you might well enjoy hunting out these things.

  4. Taris is interesting because it's one of the few planets in the game that differs based on faction. If you're Imperial, it's a level 30-something planet. It uses the same map, but it takes place at night. Instead of being so unrelentingly yellow, it's a beautiful cloudless night that sells the haunting feel of the ruins incredibly well.

    I never much cared for Republic Taris, but Imperial Taris is possibly my favourite base-game planet. It's the only one I've been happy to repeat the planetary story for.

    SWTOR does have a bad habit of making its planets too monochromatic. Wait till you get to Voss. Orange: The Planet.

    Also, as a point of clarification, your class story is the same for both subclasses. Scoundrels and gunslingers get the same smuggler story.

    As for whether it's one of the better ones, I'd rate it as middling personally, but it does depend on taste. It's the most pulpy, least serious, and least connected to Force mysticism or intricate politics of all the class stories. If you like a light, humorous story, it's good. Myself I had a lot of fun with the smuggler story (the female smuggler VA does snark so very well), but all things being equal I did prefer the darker, more serious stories.

    1. Now that is interesting. Makes me look forward to doing Taris again, definitely.

      I knew each class only gets one story. I assume the sub-class relates to the mechanics of combat more than anything. I prefer Scoundrel as a generic, though, because "Smuggler" is ridiculous. Who would actually call themselves a smuggler? Even more ludiicrous are the Smuggler Bays in the spaceports. Doesn't smuggling, by definition, have to be illegal? Otherwise it's just import/export or courier work, isn't it? How can a Spaceport have designated parking for Smugglers?

      When it comes to MMORPG narratives, I'm far more likely to be happy with a lighthearted adventure story than something that sets out to be serious, let alone dark. I'm extremely cynical about the capacity of most people currently writing for games to hit the much higher benchmark "serious" themes require. Literally the only MMORPG I've known to manage it is TSW and even there it's only on the equivalent level of a decent indie potboiler. There's a huge demand for skilled writers these days in several media that pay much better and have much higher status than video games so it's silly to expect to find many really good writers choosing to work in a less-prestigious form for less money under significantly inferior working conditions. It's amazing we get anything readable at all, frankly.

  5. The main thing this post makes me want to say is simply "yes, thank you". It's nice to see someone talk in depth about SWTOR's MMO parts. I obviously love the class stories too, but I wouldn't have remained an active subscriber for 7+ years if that was all there was to the game.

    It's a shame that MMO discussion frequently seems to boil down to talking about a game's one unique/unusual feature while treating everything else as if it's not worth the bother because supposedly theme parks are all the same anyway. I still remember my utter bewilderment when I tried dungeons in Secret World Legends and found them to be extremely fun - from all my reading about the game, I barely knew that it had dungeons. In a genre one of whose selling points is to have a little bit of everything, it seems odd that people are often so keen to limit their experience.

    1. I couldn't agree more. You never really know which parts of an MMORPG are going to click until you try, and even then you can't always be sure because some elements work better or worse solo, in duos, in groups, before or after this or that update, with this class... Might as well try everything once and then if you come back few months or years later try it all again in case it's changed!

      I can think of plenty of aspects of plenty of MMOs that I was fairly sure I wouldn't enjoy before I tried them - Battlegrounds in WoW, Diplomacy in Vanguard, WvW in GW2 - and then when I did they ended up being some of my favorite parts of the game. On the other hand, some things - Fractals in GW2, Raiding in EQ or EQ2 - never really appealed even after I gave them a fair shake. You have to pick and choose but you need more information to make a meaningful choice than "everybody says this is the best/worst part of the game".


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide