Monday, May 6, 2019

My Other Life : SW:TOR

Yesterday, when I was playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, I was struck by a mild irony. I'd just finished a post noting the blog's drift from fantasy to science fiction, quoting this game as proof, and what did I find myself doing? Placing runes on an altar in a dungeon to summon a demon.

And it didn't end there. In an entirely unrelated sequence of missions that took up much of the afternoon and evening I engaged in a series of ritual initiations so I could join a quasi-mystical cult, after which I delved deep into a vast mausoleum on a mission to seal tombs to keep ancient, dark spirits from rising.

Okay, I was killing the possessed minions with a rifle and sealing the crypt doors with a welding torch but that's hardly Science Fiction either. Action-adventure, maybe. More Indiana Jones than Han Solo.

I shouldn't really be surprised. TOR is "WoW in space", after all. And some old-school S.F. fans I know (and I know a few) would scoff at the Star Wars franchise being labelled "Science Fiction" in the first place. Even so, I found it disconcerting.

I was playing my second character, a Sniper, the ranged offshoot of the Imperial Agent class. I picked Agent because everyone seems to think it has the best story and Sniper because I'd read it had overwhelming AoE potential.

Those promises have, so far, been borne out in play. "Suppressive Fire", which is apparently the least-efficient AE, clears gangs of mobs faster than the Scoundrel can stealth past them. The only thing that slows me down is picking up all the loot.

I went with Engineering for the advanced spec. According to Dulfy's guide it's "the most challenging of the three Sniper specs", "very controversial" and "the hardest" - but only for PvP. Since I don't plan on doing much PvP that doesn't matter.

Another guide I like,, says the "recommendation for leveling would be either Marksmanship or Engineering. The former is better for target swapping, the latter excels at AoE". It was AoE I wanted so Engineering it was.

The disadvantage of the Sniper is that it has to use "Cover" for pretty much everything. Cover is a really irritating mechanic that I have rarely had to deal with in almost forty years of gaming. I know what it is but I can't recall playing a game that uses it. I've been lucky.

In TOR, the concept of "cover" is so attenuated it barely counts and yet I still find it annoying. If you boil away the flavor, what it mostly means is having to press an extra key every time you attack. Added to that there's not having your icons where you put them because a special cover bar replaces the regular one. The final indignity being stalked by a stupid green ghost that shows you where you can hide, mostly in some really stupid place you'd never pick in a million years and that's going to get you killed.

Or it would if you weren't so insanely OP, because those are the penalties you incur for being incredibly powerful in solo play. And I barely have any of the good skills yet. I can stand a few extra key presses to play a class that effectively one-shots three-spawns before they can even react.

I'm very happy with the class mechanics, even allowing for cover. I'm also increasingly interested in the story.

I haven't read any spoilers or walkthroughs but I have done a few searches on "best story". Agent is always in the top three; often first. The characters are stock and the writing and voice acting are at best solid but the plot is twisty, turny and unpredictable, which suits me.

Paradoxically, given my stated dislike of having to make "meaningful choices", I'm begining to chafe against the looseness of the bonds in TOR's faction system. I still can't always reliably predict whether an option will give Light or Dark faction, let alone whether my Companion will approve or disapprove. That's good.  In theory I wholeheartedly approve of the ambiguity. Since I learned that it really makes no difference to gameplay either way, though, I've started to wish that it would.

It's probably just as well it doesn't because, predictably, I find it all but impossible to make any response that makes me feel I'm not being polite, let alone take the ones that are clearly "evil". The way I'm heading, I'm going to end up playing Mary Poppins of the Stasi, floating in on my invisible umbrella, solving everyone's problems with a stern look, a few choice words of wisdom and a great deal of gunfire. Apparently that's a perfectly acceptable career choice in the modern-day (Evil) Empire.

So far walking the Imperial path hasn't been quite as uncomfortable as I expected. There have been a couple of "are you sure you want to play this game any more?" moments but nothing genuinely terminal.

I do find the casual, genre tone in TOR makes the nasty stuff more disturbing and less acceptable than the significantly darker, nastier material in The Secret World. I think it's because I never felt, while playing as a Templar, that I was expected to be complicit in abhorrent behavior. It might have been different if I'd gone with Illuminati.

There is some of that in TOR, although I'd have to say there's some in most MMORPGs. I usually play characters who oppose it, though. Or just ignore it by not engaging with the story at all. Playing Empire side in TOR seems to obligate a certain degree of complicity. I'm curious to see how long I can tolerate it.

There are no such problems with the locations. I started on Hutta, which was even more yellow than Taris, something I would not have believed possible. I like the Hutt. Well, I don't like them; they're repulsive. But they all remind me of Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon, which helps a lot.

Hutta seemed to pass quite quickly, unlike the Imperial capital,  Dromund Kaas, where I feel like I've spent just short of forever. I realised I might have been there too long when I noticed that some of the mobs had already gone gray before I'd even made it out of the first area.

Level scaling in TOR is strange. I got annoyed by doing missions where all the mobs were giving me no experience so I went and looked up how it works but I still don't get it.

On the Republic side I can go back to Ord Mantell at 50 and get good xp killing Level 8 mobs but as an Imperial Agent, doing at-level missions at 17 with no level scaling in effect, the mobs I'm being asked to kill are too low to give XP. I'm willing to bet that if I come back in twenty levels and do those missions again I'll get the XP I couldn't get the first time around. That can't be ideal.

If you have to hang around, there are worse places. Hutta is acid yellow but Dromund Kaas is Kind of Blue. Or the city is, at least. There's a bizarre, rainy, round midnight, New York noir feel to the place. The New York of Man in the High Castle, that is.

I bought a Stronghold at the first opportunity (which messed up my "Have you ever thought of buying a stronghold?" mission) and the cinematic sets the tone perfectly. The moody shots on the rainswept balcony make me want to earn enough credits just to open that room before my subscription lapses.

Dromund Kaas took a while to get going. Like Taris, there are altogether too many circuitous paths to make cross-country travel a walk in the park. I seemed to be spending even longer than usual trail-finding, often ending up in a dead end or back where I started.

In time, though, the story opened out and I spent most of Sunday playing. I topped out at Level 21 with the Revan storyline on Dromund Kaas complete and my class storyline paused at what looked to be a crucial moment.

The whole thing would have gone a lot faster and more smoothly if it hadn't been so damned busy. The Empire seems to be a much more popular choice than The Republic. Dromund Kaas was positively heaving with people, which would have been great if it wasn't for another of TOR's old-school mechanics.

I don't think I've been KS'd this often since Ruins of Kunark. Over and over I found myself in the same area doing the same mission as two or three other people. No-one invited anyone to group (not that I can complain about that: I didn't either). We just all ran around leap-frogging each other, trying to kill the mobs or click on the things before someone else got there first.

There was one time when I literally could have joined a line to kill a boss for a Mission, something I last remember doing in the original Rift tutorial. I opted to go and do another mission instead. When I came back the boss was up but before I could attack him some crazed Sith leapt over my head with two elites chasing him and started to hack away at the boss with his Lightsaber. At least you get credit for the kill if you do enough damage, or so I discovered by going flat out with everything I had.

I guess this is evidence that the game is doing not too badly, population-wise. I'm playing on a North American server, too, so I'm not even seeing it at its busiest. Thank god!

I don't have a spaceship yet, nor the slightest suggestion that I'm likely to get one. The Smuggler story turns on getting your stolen starship back to the extent that, when it happened, I felt like I'd finished the whole thing. By contrast, and at about the same level, it seems as though the Agent storyline has barely started.

As must be obvious by now, I'm very much enjoying myself so far. I'm keeping my hand in on other MMORPGs but there's a good chance TOR will be my main game for a while. If I have any doubts they come, perhaps surprisingly (although perhaps not) from the stories.

Not the quality so much as the quantity. At times playing TOR can feel more like watching a TV show or reading a book than playing an MMORPG. You can sidestep that for a while by exploring or grinding mobs or running Heroics but the story is always going to suck you back in eventually. Like quicksand.

For now, that's okay. But I find the thought of six more class stories, not to mention the planaetary arcs and the story-heavy expansions to come, more daunting than encouraging. Looking at the Smuggler story, for example, I'm Level 51 and I haven't even got to the end of Chapter One. At this rate it would take me most of the year, playing all the time, to finish even the original class stories.

When I finished playing yesterday I told Mrs Bhagpuss I'd had to stop because my brain hurt. I wasn't tired in the way I often get in games from concentrating on the mechanics. I was reeling from too much storytelling.

I have never felt like that after a long session playing an MMORPG, not even story-heavy TSW. It's the enervating-yet-overfull sensation I associate with binge-watching tv or staying up too late to finish a novel, not with the supposedly relaxing pastime of playing games.

I think the truth is that I'm going to have to pace myself. At the rate I'm going I will burn out before I get to see the end of anyone's story. Also, when I return to work, as I will next week, I'm just not going to have the time to play the way I have been.

That's okay, though. I don't think TOR is going anywhere. I'll take my time.


  1. Ever since I first saw Star Wars labelled as "Science Fantasy" somewhere, I've generally stopped referring to it as sci-fi. I mean, the Force is basically magic, isn't it? I think that's part of why the setting has retained so much of its appeal to me over the years, by basically filling its own niche within a niche.

    My #1 tip for making the cover mechanic slightly less annoying: Go to the Sniper panel in your abilities and look for "Crouch", then put that on your bar to replace the default "Take Cover". It causes you to take cover on the spot by using a small portable shield, so it gets rid of all those annoying "why did I just roll over there, where I can't even target my enemies" moments.

    As for level sync, basically every planet has a "max level" you will get scaled down to if you're above it. Mobs turn grey once you're... I forget, six or seven levels above them I think. On most planets this means you never stop getting XP for anything you do as the mobs only have a level range of about five, but Coruscant and Dromund Kaas are special cases as they were originally meant to cover level 10-18, so in the lower level areas you'll run into mobs that are so low that it's possible to already be out of the range where they give XP. I don't think this happens anywhere else from what I can recall.

    1. Ah, thanks for the explanation on level scaling. That makes sense. Typical of MMOs that have been around a while, where not all of the jigsaw pieces fit together as tightly as they should.

      I'll do that with Crouch. That's what happens if there's no official Cover spot nearby and it's miles easier.

      I was very tempted to mention "Science Fantasy" in the post but I tend to associate it with a fantasy setting that uses SF trappings, whereas Star Wars is the other round. Still works, though. And yes, The Force is definitely magic!

    2. Oh, and as for "overdosing on story", I think taking it slowly is definitely the way to go. Even playing it as my main MMORPG full time, it took me nearly two years until I had seen all the base stories... :)

      My only advice would be to try and resist the urge to get too many different classes rolling at once. While it's very tempting to roll alts of every class quickly, just to see what they are like, it does get hard to keep track of what's going on in each one if you're constantly hopping between them (plus you end up repeating the starter planets over and over without much of a break).

  2. Ah, a Chiss sniper, just like my main. A fine choice. Also, "Mary Poppins of the Stasi" got an actual lol out of me.

    I very much agree with the consensus that the agent story is the strongest, and chapter one is by far the least interesting leg of it, so if you're enjoying it now, know that it only gets better from here.

    Dromund Kaas is one of my favourite planets in the game, up there with Imperial Taris and Yavin IV. I find it very atmospheric, and it's not nearly so painful to navigate as Coruscant. I feel like Bioware kind of shot itself in the foot by making the Kaas City stronghold one of the easiest to acquire, because now I have no need for any other stronghold.

    1. I know almost nothing about the races in star Wars, unless they featured prominently in the original trilogy. The Chiss looked a bit like an EverQuest Dark Elf, I thought,which seemed very appropriate for a Secret Policeman, given that Neriak is virtually a police state.

      Coruscant is impressive but I deinitely preferred Dromund Kaas. I think I've done everything there now so I've moved on but I'm more than happy with my Stronghold there - especially since it cost me all of seven credits!

    2. Chiss became popular from a character from some of the older books, Admiral Thrawn. He was on the Empire side. They reintroduced him in one of the newer animated shows. He was described as a stoic military genius. I do not think that race was in the original trilogy.

  3. I know I'm really late to the party, but based on your SWTOR posts I've also picked it back up. I had a bunch of characters on many different servers back in the day, and they were all now on ... not Satele Shan, but the other one. But anyway.... I hadn't played them in so long I had no connection to them, so I deleted down to 8 characters (1 of each type, 4 in each faction) that were highest level.

    Found out after the fact that this meant I deleted some of my higher-level crafters. On the one hand, oops! But on the other, crafting is very quick and easy to pick back up, so... eh.

    Back when I was playing during the 1st year of the game I'd finished the Inquisitor and Trooper stories, so I started working on my next highest character. I've now finished 3 more stories and am close to a 4th.... but I'm burning out. So we'll see if I ever bother picking up those last 2. I've gotten a couple of characters in to their 60's now from doing their stories, but haven't felt the need to cap them at 70 either, so we'll see how it goes.

    I think part of the burnout is that I am just not digging the Jedi Sentinel play style at all. I've tried 2 different paths now and neither one "does it" for me, and reading about the 3rd one... it doesn't sound like it would either. But... I'm level 49 now and just doing story quests, which will get me to about 52 by the time I finish the story on Corellia, I think. Maybe even higher, since I'm still on Hoth and have Belsavis and Voss to go before even getting to Corellia....


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