Pulling Back (Again)

Five weeks ago, I logged back into SWTOR for a "trial week", to see if I could break back into it in some form again.

Five weeks on, I am on the verge of taking another extended break (once TGW has been and gone).

I have mentioned previously that I had made it my goal to reduce the amount of time I was spending on playing games. I am normally not very good at sticking to goals that I set myself, as I have the mental fortitude of a plate of jelly when it comes to actually committing to a lot of things, so I was perfectly well aware that I would make this bold statement about how I was definitely going to stop wasting as much time on this game, only to keep on playing it all year and beyond with as much gusto as ever.

Turns out, it's actually been much, much easier to stick to this plan than I first thought.


Okay, so to break down how my thoughts have evolved over the past five weeks:


1) Raiding.

I mentioned a couple of posts back that it was probably "best" that I stick to more casual stuff rather than anything serious, since if there was any risk that the serious raiding would continue to contribute to my ill feelings about this game it was wisest to avoid it as much as possible.

Unfortunately... that wasn't quite possible.

Story modes are in a bizarre place for a lot of people. The old legacy SMs, with the sole exception of Gods from the Machine which is still very hectic, are very easy to complete and are often described by several guildies as "boring" and a "complete faceroll". I have to step in every single time this comment comes up, reminding them that - as experienced players in fully-augmented 330 gear - that's kinda what story modes should be to them. 

That said, I do acknowledge that as 340 gear eventually becomes more accessible, it's going to get even more insane than it already is...

In terms of challenge, how I like to view things in group content is thus:

Story mode: accessible to everyone, irrespective of skill level or class.

Veteran mode: requires more experience than story, but not providing too much of an additional challenge.

Master mode: requires a high level of experience with classes and mechanics, but should still be more than accessible after gearing up from veteran modes.

At the moment, story mode (on the whole) is pretty much the only operation tier which sits bang on the money with my ideas of how it should be. I remember doing a Dxun SM run (after the recent nerfs) where one of the healers opined that story modes should present some form of a challenge, and while I do get that view I also have to ask; why? If players want a challenge, there are more modes accessible to them for that - as the baseline tier that anyone can access via activity finder, why force players to encounter a challenge that might put them off this content altogether?

Granted, said player (at the moment) is only taking part in our casual social Saturday raid nights, which do tend to be story mode more often than not, so I can understand why he'd be asking for more of a challenge when he's not likely to see much more than veteran EV / KP anytime soon.

So, now that I've laid the groundwork for how I feel story modes should be, many people who have been raiding since 7.1 will know exactly where this leads.

R-4 Anomaly.

A couple of weeks before R-4 launched, a fellow officer stated that it was his intent to take the social team into the new op the very first week, once the progression teams had cut their teeth on it a bit. Having read a little bit about the feedback for the first two bosses from the PTS, I immediately stepped in to say "no, that's too soon". The small handful of social-only players we have are not bad players by any means, and our social runs are often peppered with progression-tier players, but it was evident from this feedback that even our full progression teams would struggle a bit with the first two bosses.

Indeed, it took our progression teams a good part of their first evenings to get those two bosses down, and it was only on the following evenings that they were able to get past boss 3 and up to boss 4.

And it's boss 4 where things really kick off. 

It took two weeks for all three progression teams to kill her. On story mode. 

This is entirely down to two phases which are far too punitive for story mode.

Firstly, Recursive Blast. This is a chain knockback that links four players together and knocks them directionally proportional from the previous target. The first player gets knocked back from Dominique herself, then the next player gets knocked back from that player, and so on. This can get really hectic, as a bad angle can catapult one player in the chain off the gantry, and that in turn can result in the next player being knocked into thin air and glitching out. Additionally, anyone within the accompanying yellow circle also gets knocked back, even if they don't have Recursive Blast!

Additionally, if anyone gets the annoying bug where they see a character is stuck face down on the floor, it takes about two seconds for the yellow circle of Recursive to update whenever they move. I saw that on our sage healer on Sunday night, and we seemingly kept standing on each other with our circles as I legitimately could not tell where or even when he was moving until his circle jumped.


Recursive Blast is also immediately followed by a mechanic called Force Blast. This is easily avoidable, provided you know how - you just have to have someone standing directly next to her. So if you have a team of melee DPS with one healer up top next to Dominique and you're too slow killing the attractor and the healer gets knocked off the gantry by Recursive Blast... you're getting hit by Force Blast.

This is basically a one-shot, as it hits you with four to five successive blasts of high damage. I had been pulled in to help the first team that got up to Dominique, and Force Blast was what wiped us for the majority of that evening. I twigged that nobody was up top next to her during that time, so suggested maybe sticking the tank up there since they're not necessary for the attractors and maybe she needs to have her attention directed on someone specific, but we didn't have time to investigate that as an option.

Perhaps we should have done, as the raid leader then spent the next couple of days calculating all sorts of ways to counter Force Blast. Shield at this time, take this passive, do this, do that. I should state at this juncture that in new story modes, we go in blind for the first week, so if a mechanic happens that requires a specific thing to be done, it won't be the sort of thing a team will be aware of until they've experimented a bit. 

This led to a marvellous moment with the third of our teams to reach Dominique, as on their very first pull they managed to work out the ARIA positional mechanic after accidentally failing it twice, and they still managed to get through to the Recursive Blast phase in what was easily the best first pull any team of ours had. It was wonderful to watch that on stream having seen that first-hand, since my heart was absolutely racing - would they get through it before Dominique powers up? They did, and they managed to get her down to almost 30% before the Recursive phase killed them.

However, it's the burn phase which is the absolute killer. If you have high DPS, you're going to be fine, as you can burn Dominique down before the bigger adds show up, and those adds play a significant factor in what sort of things can and will go wrong. The Reapers, for example, slow their target to a crawl - and Recursive Blast is still going out during this phase. Imagine it, a melee DPS gets Recursive, is stuck under the boss at a bad angle and is shunted far away, so the next player gets punted off, and so on and so forth.

If the big adds do show up, it's a massive race against time for your group to be able to burn Dominique down before those adds kill you. If your DPS isn't high enough - let's say one of your DPS is stuck floating below the gantry - you're dead. I should also state, before some wise-arse "helpfully" points this out in the comments, that our teams do take in five DPS. 

This is story mode. It's in activity finder. If a seasoned capable-of-making-good-progress-in-master-mode raid team struggles to complete it, how the heck can a random hodge-podge group of strangers, whose members may be able to pull 14k DPS at best stand a chance?

That's not even beginning to think about veteran mode. IP-CPT, the first boss, is so insanely difficult with the DPS check that teams are taking in six DPS and no tanks. And if you think the DPS check is the most difficult thing in that fight, oh-hoh, you've got another thing coming. That floor pattern is crucial to learn for veteran. In story, it's a nuisance, but you can afford to build up stacks if you're too slow in moving or get trapped by a giant red circle.

In veteran, you die the moment you get 5 stacks. You need to know where to move, when to move, where's safe, where's not safe, where to take your giant grenade - there are two of these in veteran now - and so on, all to avoid taking any stacks for as long as possible. This is arguably the closest SWTOR has ever been to an action-oriented MMO like ESO or Neverwinter, where red circles and other positional mechanics are even more abundant, and due to de-sync and various other issues in this game, it's horrific.

And yet... there aren't any other options remaining, at least not if you want to get better gear. Sure, they reduced the health pool of legacy ops bosses' health by at least 10%, but that's not going to make that much difference on a fight which was previously insurmountable for whatever reason. Even if it did, you'd just be going in for the sake of doing something rather than because you'd get something from it other than a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Until further notice, all gear higher than 330 is tied to VM R-4A. We've always known that R-4A would bring in higher gear, and previous concerns about content difficulty have been assuaged (or at least attempted to have been assuaged) by promises that "better gear is coming". It took five-and-a-half months to get here, it's insanely difficult to even make good headway into getting that better gear, and if you can't get past that first boss or guarantee getting a lockout from another team for boss two... that promise is meaningless. I myself tried to replicate that assuaging when someone mentioned how difficult IP-CPT looked, and in retrospect that was a massive misreading of the entire situation.

I wish I could say I was a stranger to that particular tendency.

Now, yes, eventually they will add crafting, and hopefully that will start to provide a means independent of R-4A to start getting 332+ gear if they keep Rakata and the rest at 330 from here on out. At the same time... sure, that'll make the legacy master modes more accessible, and it'll help a bit with the DPS check on IP-CPT, but we're talking two, three, maybe four or more months down the line on top of the five-and-a-half month wait for this patch for the promise of "better gear" to start trickling down in some meaningful capacity to players like me and the majority of those in my guild who aren't going to reliably benefit from Watchdog lockouts.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I do firmly believe that higher difficulty content should not be kept exclusive to the top-top % of players, as eventually... that'll just make the pool of available players smaller and smaller until there's nothing left. This is also one of the downsides of the PTS, as, sure, people can go and test R-4, but... what sort of players, what sort of teams, are doing that? Not the casuals who are the ones most likely to suffer it in activity finder. No, it'll be the hardcore progression players who do SM once, if at all, and then immediately begin work on VM.

Yet... if these are the only people actively going to test this stuff, what else can BW really do? They won't have any other feedback before it launches beyond "this is too easy, make it more challenging", and so that's the only thing they have to go on. Who cares if the forums are now full of people complaining about the difficulty? BW listened to the testing feedback, so they clearly know exactly what their player-base wanted all the time!

That's fairly cruel by my standards, but honestly, I have just had enough of dealing with the stresses of progression and all that entails with where things are right now. And, unfortunately, it's had a negative impact on how I feel about the rest of SWTOR, and it's made me want to avoid even our social nights for the time being. Will I get over it? I'm sure I will, but it still hurts knowing that something that I have enjoyed for the past few years is... not as welcoming as it once was. 

I have enjoyed seeing master mode raids, clearing them, laughing about silly moments with the team and members I have got to know and love... and at the moment, the game is dangling that content above my head, saying "it's not for you anymore!". I hope this is just a blip in how BW are going about things, because I really don't want to believe this is how they'll be going about things from now on. I'm hoping that all the feedback they've had about how even veteran modes are now so much more difficult than they were before will have opened their eyes to the fact that the hardcore raiders aren't the only raiders in the game looking to have a meaningful raiding experience.

I'm not too hopeful, however, given that this patch cycle of difficulty comes after 6.0, where they had a knee-jerk reaction to the top-top % disliking Veteran's Edge in master modes and removed it. It took a full expansion for them to rectify the changes they had made, and I fully anticipate them repeating that again this time.

I do hope they at least nerf R-4 SM before 8.0, however.


2) Story.

Digging Deeper was a nice little story quest, and I am intrigued to see where certain elements go, but on the whole I am still not at all invested in Malgus. We at least now know that he's looking into the Children of the Emperor, perhaps suggesting that he wants to make an army of thralls (imagine the results of that if he gets hold of members of the Alliance!), but there's no guarantee that's actually what he's planning on doing.

Additionally, dangit, Tenebrae, you're dead. Stop having even an indirect presence in this game already!

The Mandalorian stuff was never really of interest to me as, y'know, Mandalorians definitely aren't over-saturated in Star Wars at the moment, but linking Sa'har's story to them was something I didn't see coming. Shin and I have previously discussed that we'd find it fun if Carrick or Vaiken stations were to be attacked in a Flashpoint while Malgus gets freed, and at this point it seems likely that Sa'har could encourage Heta Kol to send a force of Mandalorians to free Malgus to help unlock the secrets of Nul's holocron - he sure seems like a trustworthy guy, I'm sure nothing could go wrong!

In general, I've always been kinda surprised that neither of the hub fleets have been under threat for the past eleven years, not even during the Zakuul invasion where everything else seemed to change. Well, now that the big-bad of the game himself, Tenebrae Malgus is imprisoned there... golden opportunity, I feel!

...in about a year's time.

Sorry, cruel comment again. 

In all honesty, though, I really don't like how this expansion is shaping up to be all bits and pieces of vague information, especially as (something that I didn't realise until Shin pointed it out) our characters have had very little agency with the current events. Malgus is here, go do this, come to Elom, be told this, go ask Malgus this, blah, blah, blah. Sure, we're off to Ruhnuk next, but if we end up being more than just tools in the Mando civil war I'll be very surprised. I'm certainly not expecting us to have any meaningful interaction with Sa'har just yet, although if we do more than catch a brief glimpse of her and call to her, I'll be happy.

And since this is now all shifting back to Alliance-centric stuff, it's mostly all going to be the same. SWTOR had done this even before 4.0, but they at least knew to create noticeably different contexts in every cutscene between factions even if the overall result was the same. On Oricon, the Empire might still free the Republic survivors, but it's done because Lord Hargrev feels they'll be useful assets in the fight rather than because "we must save our soldiers!" as it could easily have been by having Imperial players see Imperial soldiers.

Yet because we're dealing with the same characters like Kira, Lana, Scourge, everything they say is largely going to be the same regardless of which character you're on. Sure, the little bits with Gnost-Dural, Tau, Rivix, etc. are going to be different, but these are sadly few and far between in the grand scheme of things. Everything else must eventually coalesce into dealing with the same significant players.

I have never really gotten over the fact that each of our characters is essentially living in an alternate timeline once they get past Fallen Empire. It's one thing for companion characters, people who are personal to us, to be different within the Alliance. It's another thing for entire planetary and even galactic storylines to be different, since of course if you're playing an Imperial Alliance Commander... the Republic Commander and all they do can't exist. Lord Tarnux dies on Mek-Sha at the hands of the Republic Commander, but to an Imperial Commander he's alive and well and even holding Arn and Gallo hostage at the end of the Manaan storyline, as their scheme has failed in this version of events.

Nothing quite tops the whole Acina / Malcom situation, which can completely change who sits at the head of the Empire. If Acina dies on Iokath, as Republic loyalists and Imperial saboteurs will see, then Vowrawn sits on the throne. If Malcom dies, then Acina still reigns. Incidentally, we no longer have any tangible consequences to Malcom's death (it originally led to Jebevel Madon standing down as Supreme Chancellor in favour of Galena Rans, but now that's happened irrespective of your choice on Iokath!), so this entire situation feels very one-sided.

So... yeah. There are certainly things I am looking forward to exploring more of from what we've seen, but it has to be said that, much like with 4.0 and most of 5.0, my interests lie beyond the story BW are telling. Manaan was short, but it was very nice to get a reminder of the actually interesting stuff going on in the wider galaxy...

I am still pissed off that we didn't even get to see Madon once before he was replaced by Rans.


3) Other stuff.

I mentioned earlier that I had made it my goal to cut back on the amount of time I was spending playing games. This is because I am, at long last, trying to expand my horizons and explore things that I have had an interest or passion in, alongside trying to find employment.

To get the last bit out of the way, still no luck. Flinging out applications to various retail stores, but no bites yet. I imagine there are quite a lot of people trying their luck at the same time, to be honest...

In terms of the other stuff, I showed off artwork I had produced in a previous post of BB-8 and a (very surprised) Darth Vader, and I have been enjoying keeping going with that. I'm quite pleased with where my skill level currently is, but I do of course have more to learn. Nothing to show off this time, however. 

In general, however, the thing that I'm most proud to say is that I haven't directly spent money on cartel coins or crowns or anything like that for an entire month. I have often flippantly commented that I have a spending problem with MMOs, and while I'm not in a bad place financially, I have come very close to being overdrawn with my debit account on some months.

I should state at this juncture that I'm currently 'living' on a £450 / month income - that's allowance from family combined with Universal Credit. Just so people don't think I'm spending thousands and thousands - I'm not, but with occasional food purchases, subscriptions, and other direct debits, it's easy enough to burn through at least £200 of that a month before any luxury purchases are considered. I really need a job.

So... yeah. I'm happy with that. Sure, I can justify spending some money on a game each month, but (while it won't matter all that much once we get to October) it's still nice to cut back on the sheer amount of expenditure on unnecessary 'stuff' that I was racking up relative to my 'income'. 

Yeah, October's going to be... expensive...


As much as I don't feel aligned with SWTOR at the moment, I still feel a considerable amount of attachment to it, largely due to the community I am part of and the friends I have come to know through it. I doubt I'll be walking away entirely anytime soon, but it's not great that I'm going to be taking a second break so soon after my last. I don't want to guess if this one will be longer or shorter than the previous one, as anything can and likely will happen. I'm giving myself this last week, to help where I can with my guild's efforts with TGW, and maybe just freeing myself from the concerns of progression-related nonsense for even a fortnight will be enough.

I don't really know where I would like things to go from here, realistically. It's unlikely that we'll get 7.2 much before November at this rate, and even if that does bring in better gear with crafting I for one am unlikely to want to focus on it. If all I want to do is log on to do social night each week, I certainly won't ever need more than I have, and full 330 is plenty already for that.

That's assuming I don't suddenly feel the urge to jump back into progression content. That's... that's unlikely to happen before 8.0, I would say, based on my current feelings towards the currently inescapable meta that the difficulty of the higher-end content is presently lending itself towards.

But you never know.


Meta This, Meta That

In any game with a competitive edge, there is always some aspect of a meta build or setup. Commonly referred to as "flavour-of-the-month", this is what leads to certain characters, classes, races, builds - you name it - rising to prominence for a set duration before either being nerfed or being replaced by a new meta following buffs.

For example, in SWTOR, Commandos enjoyed a notable period of being flavour-of-the-month in PvP when 5.0 introduced their reflect and amazing self-healing potentials, while Sentinels have always enjoyed a position somewhere in the top DPS classes for many patches. 

It's the sort of thing which, as players of these games, we kinda have to acknowledge isn't going to ever go away. There will always be a meta. That's fine as long as it can, on the whole, be ignored.

However, it's the times when it really can't be ignored that can be infuriating.

SWTOR's raid content, on the whole, has tended to be fairly lenient over the years. As long as you can play a class well, you should be able to enter the majority of content with it. There are a couple of specs, notably Balance, which can be very clunky to apply to certain difficulties of content, but that's more down to how they're built than the numbers they're capable of pulling. That's a real shame, as Balance is an absolutely wonderful spec.

With 6.0, where all content outside of Nature of Progress were scaled to level 70 compared to the maximum level of 75, things changed just a tad. To begin with, things were fine; Veteran's Edge might have made things "too easy" for the top-top % to be happy with, but it at least meant that even when scaled, gear still had a major impact on performance in master mode operations. Additionally, at this point a lot of this content is so old that it should be made a bit more accessible to other players, else master mode progression raiding will just die out. There are only so many times one can tolerate needing to progress through Scum & Villainy again from scratch with all the headaches that entails.

However, since all of 6.0's content was built with Veteran's Edge in mind, the sudden removal of it in 6.1 meant that a lot of that content subsequently became too difficult. My raid team had cleared up to the Terror on our first night in TFB a week prior to this change, which, sure, can be seen as excessively easy, but consider what happened the following week once this change had been implemented.

We couldn't get Writhing Horror down at all. This one change meant that we had gone from enjoying a decent level of success that would be expected of players of our level of experience and playtime, to suddenly finding a roadblock with boss one. Sure, we did get her down a week later, but it became clear very quickly that we would have our work cut out for us from this point forward. BW did bolster stats in master mode again shortly afterward, but it still wasn't enough as the content was still tuned higher than that bolster. 

Now, to put some context to the situation here, my guild is not one that insists that all of its progression raiders bring the highest DPS or healing class available. We do have some players who like jumping around to various characters depending on fights (or just because they fancy bringing a certain character along), but as long as our players enjoy playing a class and can play it to a level that allows us to make good headway, that's good enough for us.

This therefore set us somewhat at odds with where the meta was starting to shift from this point forth. The best fight I can set as an example would be the Hateful Entity in S&V master mode. We gave it a good go in 6.0 with a team of good players, getting at least a third of its health down, but eventually it just proved too taxing and we walked away. 

We learnt shortly afterward that the commonly-accepted strategy for that fight was to just stack  your group full of Powertechs as your DPS. They would all share their Rebounders to mitigate the incoming damage and use Hydraulic Overrides to negate the knockbacks as much as possible. If a fight is so insanely tuned that you have to resort to such a specific team-composition to get it down... something has gone hideously wrong.

Even in 'normal' MM fights it became clear that we'd have to resort to adopting specific strategies just to get fights down. Returning back to Writhing Horror, the best way to get it down was to take at least one Shadow tank in, as they would stealth out at the tank-swap, meaning that no babies would spawn in for the group to deal with. Granted, it's not the most OP Shadow tanks have been - at the start of 5.0, they could literally one-shot the boss the moment the first tank-swap mechanic happened. One ability, boom, boss dies. Additionally, for the longest while, the best way to tank Operations Chief was to shimmy-and-shake behind the pipe and line-of-sight the majority of his attacks.

Both of these have since been patched out, and you know what that means for Horror? It means that to have the best shot at killing it in 7.0, you would just stack your group with high AoE DPS classes and burn those adds down on top of the boss. No dealing with the flower mechanic as intended, just group those adds up and burn them down. In a way, it's still ignoring the mechanic like before, but it just seems ridiculous that still, after all this time, you shouldn't execute the fight "properly".

The case of the Horror in this patch-cycle is just one indicator of how silly things have been with 7.0. The content has been so difficult for the past five-and-a-half months that if you aren't running with a specific setup and with very skilled players behind all those characters, you will have very little chance at clearing that content. This impacts a vast number of the fights in master mode and even a couple of veteran mode fights. According to parsely, IZAX VM hadn't been cleared once prior to 7.1, and even now it doesn't look like any teams have managed it. Gods From the Machine is thus the only operation in the game at the moment that no group has seemingly been able to clear beyond SM.

Even with the new operation, it's clear that there is a strong degree of meta. The first boss in VM is currently forcing groups to take in teams consisting solely of DPS and healers. Sure, the others beyond that are reportedly easier, but the lengths a team has to go to to even stand a chance at getting past the first boss... it doesn't fill me with enthusiasm. Never mind how Dominique seems to encourage bringing in classes that can reliably negate the knockbacks and mitigate incoming damage even in SM...


Granted, as bad as things can be in SWTOR right now, it does have some way to go until it matches the sheer lunacy of the meta in Elder Scrolls Online.

This past year in ESO has seen player builds become increasingly homogenised. For context, unlike in SWTOR, classes have only a limited degree of class identity, since any character of any class can be magicka, stamina, wield any type of weapon, wear any weight of armour, and be any kind of role. With a change earlier this year to make it so that damage of all kinds scales with your highest offensive resources, this means that now magic characters can wield swords, daggers, axes, etc. with as much if not better effectiveness than they could a staff, and they can now just pick any ability as long as they can sustain their resources properly.

"What's the significance of that?", you may ask. It lies in the achievements. While in SWTOR only Nature of Progress and R-4 Anomaly have challenge achievements, most if not all veteran raids and even dungeons in ESO do, including no-death, timed runs, and completing a special "hard mode" version of certain fights (basically, imagine setting foot into a VM run where you could opt to turn a boss into its MM equivalent). The hardest achievements in this game are the trifectas - no-death, timed run, and hard mode all in one go. If your best shot to complete these achievements is to spec your character into a hybrid build, you can be damned sure that you'll be encouraged to do so. 

Bear in mind that this can, and likely will, involve hours of grinding specific content to get as many of the "right" pieces as possible and, with how often ESO releases new sets, you may find yourself doing this every couple of months rather than once every two years or so if certain new sets or items are deemed "good" enough. I think at the moment healers are encouraged to collect about five or so sets for raiding, corresponding with their fellow healers before each raid to see which set they'll be wearing to provide specific benefits to the group. This is even before you consider what classes those healers are, which adds a further layer to proceedings.

I was initially quite dismissive of the extremes of this practice - "you don't need to force yourself to do this", I remember saying to one guildie who complained about it - but after investigating it myself... yeah, I can see why they do. My main character over there, a Templar, can pull about 55 - 60k on a dummy in her full magic build, the one I've always used forever. After acquiring the right skills, weapons, etc. to adhere to a "meta" version of that same build, that DPS increased to 75 - 80k. That's at least an increase of +36% DPS, and even then that's still on the lower side compared to what these builds can pull (current record is about 140k, but that's very extreme; a lot of builds are in the high 90 - 110k range). 

Sure, in an actual raid that DPS will be around half of what it is on the dummy, but still; one of those builds will effectively be being carried in a raid, while the other is pulling its weight more effectively. 

The closest comparator I have to that in SWTOR is my beloved Sage. I run a decidedly off-meta build with her Legendaries, having opted for Dynamic Force and Force Training even though the meta recommends Gathering Storm and Unmatched Haste. The difference between the two builds on a dummy parse is less than 10%. Is GS / UH a better pairing? Undoubtedly, based on the numbers, yes. Do I care? Not in the slightest. I can still more than pull my own weight in group content with the off-meta build and I am not lumbered with a playstyle I quickly grew to dislike immensely throughout 6.0. Win-win, as far as I'm concerned.

That's the problem that I have with content strongly encouraging you to adapt to a meta build or group setup for group content. It's one thing if you're just shy of the required DPS or survivability checks because you're running with a group that differs from the ideal, but it's another if you're not even left with a decent chance of clearing that content as a result. What can you hope to do when even your apparent best is not enough?

Yet that's where things have been for the past few months. If you're a meta-chaser who enjoys being able to play numerous classes to a high standard and surround yourself with players who feel similarly, good chance this is the sort of thing you really like. To players like myself, however, this sort of thing feels incredibly tedious and just makes me question what enjoyment I really derive from these games anymore.

It also makes it really difficult to incentivise new players joining in with harder content, as there is a lot for them to understand before they can really get involved. I've said it earlier, but this content really should not be an extremely exclusive club, only open to the top-top % of players. If it remains so for a considerable length of time and enough of those players leave... eventually this level of progression raiding will just die out altogether. It certainly remains at risk of doing so the harder it becomes for newer players to be introduced to it, and that seems to be the way BW are going about things at the moment.

I recently rolled a new Sith Warrior, just to remind myself that there is more to SWTOR than fretting about whether or not certain content can be cleared. I'm thankful for the communities I've been a part of in both ESO and SWTOR, because without them... I'm this close to just calling it quits for MMOs altogether just to escape the almost overwhelming presence the concept of meta has at the moment.


The Confusing Nature of SWTOR's Recent Operations Storylines [R-4 Anomaly Story Spoilers]

SWTOR is known for incorporating story threads of varying lengths in its operations content, with frequent connections between other operations and planetary storylines. For example, the Dread Master storyline concludes in Dread Palace, but this is actually the eighth part of a long storyline that begins all the way back with the Belsavis planetary storyline, with the planet Oricon being the only other part of the chain which is set outside of an operation instance.

In recent years, the trend has shifted to operations being more of their own thing, with any connections being between the instance and the story of the planet they're set on, and even then the connections might not be deeper than surface-level. For example, Ravagers is connected so loosely to the story of Rishi that you do not need to complete the planetary story quests to get useful context to understand what's-what. Your stopping the Ravagers does not depend on you having (in-theory) stopped the Nova Blades first, while the Nova Blades' presence is not noted to increase if you clear The Ravagers first.

Otherwise, Temple of Sacrifice follows on directly from Yavin IV's wider story, and Gods from the Machine follows on from Iokath's wider story. Point is, since Dread Palace ended the Dread Masters arc, operations have not been connected together for many years. That is, until 2022.

With the culmination of Nature of Progress, if you spare Trey Adelair, you are treated to the revelation that not only did the AI of the Dxun research facility, ARIA, invite the trandoshans to the facility in the first place, but that she somehow escaped. Immediately upon hearing that, I guessed that it would lead to another operation's story, although seeing how convoluted 6.0's story became after that point in opening several doors that may not be explored for many more months to come, it was also perhaps reasonable to believe that following ARIA would just be another one of those "potential" stories.

The newest operation, R-4 Anomaly, does prove to be a direct successor to Dxun, but the connections are not quite as important as BioWare initially makes it seem. You can only pick up the quest if you've completed Dxun, suggesting that maybe Trey Adelair - who you can kill - makes an appearance if he survives, but he's nowhere to be seen. Best guess is that Mex, who you do meet in person after only seeing him as a holo before, mentions Trey's fate if he dies, but since all of my characters thus far have spared Trey I am in no position to confirm. 

Not even knowing how the Nature of Progress operation concludes is entirely useful here, however. Sure, it at least sets ARIA up when she returns, but there's really very little that directly depends on clearing Dxun. Indeed, R-4 continues a trend that was previously seen with Gods from the Machine - that trying to make sense of the actual ongoing story in the operation itself is very, very confusing.

For Gods, the best that I have managed to work out is that SCYVA is keeping the final boss, IZAX, asleep. Because she doesn't want him to be awoken, lest he strikes out and brings about a new galactic holocaust, she encourages the rest of the godkin to kill the invasion team before they get to her. Of course, they fail, and we kill her, resulting in IZAX awakening.

This then leads to SCYVA helping us at points throughout the final fight, since she evidently sees it as her duty to prevent IZAX from escaping Iokath, and indeed she is a crucial ally throughout.

However, this is barely explained in the instance itself. In the IZAX fight, she speaks up about how she's created drones and the like to help us, yet it's not explained how she survived the previous encounter. Considering that her "death" woke IZAX in the first place, could she not have just created a backup program that was dependent on her "actual" death, and not just the death of her chassis?

So for the most part, the team is left with this voice just saying "do this, do that" but never exactly why we're doing this and doing that beyond "it'll kill IZAX". It's all down to implication, which can be fine... but there's a difference between audience interpretation and being left clutching at straws to make sense of several disparate elements. 

That said, for some reason there are many lines within the IZAX fight that do not play. I'm wondering if SCYVA had some extra lines in the fight that would help to explain exactly why she's around and still helping us, but if only IZAX is rendered mute then the lack of full context behind SCYVA's defection is apparently intended. Not helpful.

Moving on to R-4 Anomaly, the setting itself is established fairly well. It's a Sith research facility constructed around the mass shadow generator, when three Sith Lords followed hints provided by ARIA following her discovery hiding amongst Sith Relics by Lady Dominique. That in itself is not a significant problem, as it does at least set things up reasonably well. Admittedly, I had initially been under the impression that it was a Czerka facility, not Sith, but it's at least established for definite in a Codex entry and not left to (mis)interpretation for all time.

However, where things begin to fall apart a tad is with the actual stuff leading up to Dominique in the operation itself.

To begin with, ARIA seemingly speaks with two voices. When she speaks up the first time, it's in a much deeper voice which is immediately not "her", and yet Mex is somehow immediately able to identify her (update: note that this comes after he claims that he can only see us, not hear us - so how can he hear ARIA?). I first thought that this was a case of the actress for ARIA being recast between 6.0 and 7.1, much like how Heta Kol was recast. Yet partway through the watchdog fight, a facility survivor speaks up, and her voice is much more familiar...

The reason for why ARIA speaks with a deeper and noticeably harsher tone is not given, but after many mental gymnastics my belief at the moment is that, if it truly is her, she was impersonating Lady Dominique (or her new AI partner; I'll get to that in a minute) to 'pacify' the watchdog. Best guess is that in-universe, the watchdog would probably be a lot more deadly if it believed that its master wasn't watching over it, indicating that something had happened to her. Hence, the impersonation. 

Since watchdog apparently turns up to help Dominique in veteran mode, this certainly indicates that the dog is a very loyal 'creature' and wants to know that its master is safe and well.

However, this also assumes that somehow ARIA was able to lock Dominique and her fellow Sith out of the system, as ARIA's is seemingly the only voice that we hear of the R-4 inhabitants outside of boss rooms. If it was just Dominique by herself, this would perhaps be a reasonable assumption, as a gifted AI is going to be very difficult to work around.

Yet ARIA isn't the only AI on the station. Another AI, named EVE, is mentioned just as you approach the mass shadow generator, and her presence is completely unexplained. Was she the AI integrated into the facility, much like ARIA was on Dxun, or was she an AI found within the mass shadow generator? All that's stated in a Codex entry is that Dominique tried integrating with artificial intelligence, and based on the mechanics of the fight and how ARIA is helping us, it's apparent that this AI is EVE. We learn literally nothing else about her, with her in-operation introduction coming literally out of nowhere in an expository speech by ARIA.

If EVE was the station AI, how can ARIA seemingly lock her out, if that really is what has happened? Surely she would have greater priority in the system than a 'stranger' AI? I can therefore only assume that EVE was an AI integrated in the mass shadow generator, explaining quite nicely how Dominique can tap into its power so effortlessly and where EVE disappears off to when the two separate. Also, were Dominique's extensive cybernetics (including her hands, legs, and apparently even her throat) part of her before she started the experimental merging process, or did they become a part of her afterward?

Update: I'm now of the opinion that 'mean' ARIA is an impersonation of EVE. Additionally, to add to the confusion, EVE describes ARIA as a "copy-error" when telling her to buzz off in the final fight, and we have absolutely no idea what this means. Joy!

On top of everything else, Lord Valeo was meant to be the operation's third boss before he was cut. It's possible that extra dialogue would have been implemented that would provide a more seamless transition between 'mean' ARIA and chirpy 'normal' ARIA, and maybe explained more about EVE. As it is, it just goes from 'mean' ARIA to her providing help happily with little justification other than "I can't explain now".

Or ever, as it turns out.

Once all is said and done, in the closing cutscene you seemingly never learn what became of ARIA. Did she escape yet another facility, perhaps embedding herself in Jaca's ship's computer? Was she destroyed during the fight with Dominique, or was she another casualty of the station exploding? She just disappears during the fight after slicing the two conduits, and that's the last we see of her, although she does at least provide hints for how to use the Grey Swarm detonators to advance the fight. After that, poof, gone, seemingly forever.

Oh, and we also never learn why she invited the trandoshans or what she sought by escaping. Maybe she felt that her talents were restricted by being a 'mere' facility AI in a Czerka station, or she just really disapproved of their morals, and so invited the trandoshans to cause chaos, hopefully stop Czerka being Czerka, and escape unnoticed to a hopefully kinder master? This would certainly synchronise with her helping us to kill Dominique once she realises that she's inadvertently helped her to find a(nother) galactic superweapon. 

Until we know for definite, my belief is that she chose to go down with the facility to atone for the chaos and the deaths she's caused. She's certainly racked up a bit of a body count!


On the whole, this sort of thing is still fairly rare among all the operations. Most of them are set up very well either through earlier storylines (Dread Masters being dangerous and ancient Sith Lords who have been terrorising the Republic for centuries before going their own way with Vitiate's supposed death) or being simplistic and easy to follow (a pirate mutiny leading to the vengeful captain finding another crew to get his own back). 

Story elements within Gods, R-4, and the conclusion to Nature of Progress are more vague than they need to be, and considering how intricate a lot of SWTOR's stories have tended to be, that is disappointing and at times infuriating. I feel that the Gods case is still the worst example, since that's still not entirely clear to me even four-and-a-half years later. I'm hoping that any subsequent operation stories will be more concise and easy to follow.

Additionally, the Gods case still ticks me off because there was a golden opportunity for BioWare to tie it into the main story with 5.9's Nathema Conspiracy flashpoint. You discover the existence of ZILDROG, the last surviving machine god from the Zakuul pantheon, and your only reaction is "there's another machine god!". Even if you've cleared the entirety of Gods, that's the only reaction you get. No "we stopped the rest, we can stop this one, too!" or anything of the like, which, considering how integral the pantheon of gods had been to several of the prior updates, just makes it seem like the game doesn't want to give you closure about your accomplishment in killing the rest of ZILDROG's kin.

This is especially disappointing since BW have previously demonstrated the ability to reference operation clears in later story content: on Oricon, Dread Master Raptus has three different lines to cover the death of Dread Master Styrak. The first two are generic "the Empire / Republic slew our brother" lines to provide context if you've never cleared Scum and Villainy on a given character, but if you have cleared Scum, Raptus specifically states that you slew Styrak. Would it really have been too much to ask for just one extra bit of dialogue per character in Nathema to reflect on the other gods dying? 


Even though Nature of Progress and R-4 aren't connected together all that well, I am pleased to see operations being connected again. That said, I don't think there's much else BW can really get out of the Czerka story following this, unless they decide to bring ARIA back for a "surprise, I lived!" moment and somehow find something to build from there. I kinda hope they just leave it here, to be honest, but we'll see what happens.

I just hope that they add in just a bit more additional context to these goings-on in future. It'd be nice to not feel a bit lost with story elements of content, y'know?



Another year, another milestone.

Fun fact, until last week I had convinced myself that this year would actually be this blog's ninth anniversary, not its eighth. I'm not too sure exactly when I first thought of it like that, but it's certainly been in my head for a good few weeks, as most things that I dwell on are.

Regardless, eight years is still worth celebrating. This blog is definitely on its last legs by now, and I have kept it alive a good few years when it could have died several times beforehand. That said, I have decided that this next year will be the last year for Galactic Antics. It's been a wonderful little passion project throughout the years, and I have got to know some really lovely people through it, but it's time that this blog begins to face the long-awaited curtain call at last.

I may refer to the blog rather derisively as a "rust-bucket", but I have enjoyed working on it a fair bit over the years. While I was not inexperienced with being "out there" on the internet prior to its creation in 2014, having hosted numerous webcomics on a separate forum through 2007 to 2011, it's been a wonderful confidence booster in being able to keep an online project active for longer than a single year before moving on, either to a successor or to different things altogether.

So even if it isn't going to reach the "ideal" of a tenth anniversary, hitting eight years and ending on its ninth is not something I would have considered a likely outcome all those years ago. It's been great exposure to creating and running a website, something which I will need to look more into again in the near future once I pull my finger out a bit and focus more on my prospective career options.

It's been a fun ride, and of course it isn't over yet. With everything else going on, I don't know what sort of things I'll be touching on over the next twelve months, but since there are more than a couple of things I've been meaning to touch on over the years that I never got around to writing about, I imagine I'll try to incorporate those in the line-up somewhere.

Once again, thank you all for reading this blog, and here's to the next and final year of GA. I'll be sure to try and make it as good as possible.


7.1: Initial Impressions

So, after almost six months, here we are at last! 7.1 is out, and I've been a fair bit busy with it thus far.

The main thing which has been preoccupying me has been helping my various alt-characters catch up to 330 gear, and for this the introduction of mods has been an absolute godsend. It was, admittedly, a bit of a palaver actually getting all the mods sorted, but that's mainly because it wasn't initially specified that if you wanted the equivalent of full Rakata 330 gear, you'd need to disintegrate an item of artifact 330 and an item of prototype 330, not just one piece of the former.

Still, it's done now, and after some acquisition of some extra tech fragments all of my character pairings (Agent / Trooper, Consular / Inquisitor, Hunter / Smuggler, and Knight / Warrior) now have at least one pair of 330 legendary implants and a tactical to share between them as well as their armour, relics, and earpieces, with only the rare occasions that my knight needs to go sage or my smuggler needs to go back to being a gunslinger being the only times where they will need to pilfer items from a different character.

Although, now that completing the Implant Destiny: 330 achievement means that legendary implants are cheaper to get to 330 than they were before, that likely may not be the case for very long!

That's pretty much all I'm concerning myself with for gear at the moment. Unlike several of my fellow guildies, I'm not setting my sights on 334 implants anytime soon. At the moment, my feeling toward raiding is that it's probably best if I focus purely on the casual scene and not commit to anything 'serious', which is also why - despite signing up for one of 'my' team's raid weeks for the first time in a while - I've set myself deliberately on bench for all three nights.

Hey, if I were on the team and somebody who hadn't been around for weeks just showed up out of the blue once the new raid was on the horizon, expected and was given a spot over someone who had been there far more consistently, and then decided to bugger off again soon afterward, I certainly wouldn't be too impressed!

Seriously, though, I feel it is not my place to "barge in" at this point. It's infinitely more important that those who are likely to stick around on a consistent basis get immediate priority, and it's not like I won't ever get the chance to see the new op. I'd like to see it, of course, but I'm in no rush. Time has rarely been in short supply for me over the past couple of years, something which will change at some point.

Job hunt still continuing, by the way.

For now, I'm happy to be around as and when needed. That said, I feel I've once again fallen into the trap of doing "too much", especially this past weekend, so I'm definitely not keen to let the past few days become the norm. I need to find a happy medium, and suffice to say I haven't succeeded yet.

I really liked the 7.1 story update, short though it was, and while we still know frustratingly little about Malgus' plans the last few beats of the Digging Deeper mission set up some things which I am interested in seeing more of. I'm not going to spoil it for those who haven't seen it yet.

The Manaan daily zone is... well... big. There's a lot going on, with a couple of missions per area, but it's also very tight-knit, to the extent that it's very easy to accidentally pull something without realising, which can be an issue given how tedious some of the mob groups are. The daily missions I have done on Repside are decent enough, but they're nothing special, and I feel it's a massive oversight that these dailies reward neither daily resource matrices nor tech fragments.

There's a certain irony about the Manaan daily zone being the reason behind the original name of the resource matrices when the missions in the actual zone itself yield none.

The Republic NPCs in the story arc are okay. Wo Kasto is, I feel, a nice follow-up to Colonel Gallo, being distrusting at first but gradually offering you his begrudging respect and opening up more about his past at times. Minn Ishkah is quite a conniving character, always keen to try and present herself as an aid to the Selkath while always trying to find some methods of undermining their trust - once again, no wonder the Selkath don't trust the Republic!

I'm intrigued to see what happens in the Imperial story arc, but I expect it to be much the same in terms of functionality. Go to area 1, do quest, go to area 2, do quest, go to area 3, finish story arc. It's a novel concept in SWTOR to do this style of questline in a daily zone, and it seems almost Neverwinteresque - the only difference being that you don't need to do weeks of grinding on Manaan to unlock the subsequent quests and / or areas.

So, that's how 7.1 is going for me thus far. There are some things I really like, and other things I'm curious to see how they evolve or function. I think I would be reasonably content to just let things stall where they are here if that's what I decide to do, as I've finally got my characters up to speed with an equal gear-rating and have also thus negated the need to worry about keeping up with currencies of many different types all the time. 

But anything can happen going forward!