Archive for March 15th, 2011

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PAX East: SWTOR Taral V Flashpoint Demo Playthrough

March 15, 2011

This article is going to be a monster. It is organized into three parts — first I go through the preparation we had to do before the demo, then I talk about what our group did during our playthrough and our strategy for the boss fight, and finally, I talk about my opinions of the demo. If all this is TL;DR, feel free to just skip down to the third section of my post that summarizes my thoughts.

1. The preparation:

BioWare sure knows how to build up anticipation. On Sunday, the last day of PAX East, my husband and I spent more than three hours waiting in line at the Star War: The Old Republic booth to play the demo for the Taral V flashpoint…but it was worth it.

Right before it was our turn to step up to the stations, 12 of us were herded into a cordoned-off area and were told to get ourselves into groups of four. My husband and I had been chatting up these two friends who were waiting in line beside us, and had gotten to know that they were a tank and healer team. After watching some of the demos being played on the TV screens around us, I knew enough to know that I didn’t want to be the Trooper (anytime something bad happens, the crowds watching are always so brutal to the tank when they jeer) or the Smuggler (I’m nowhere near brave enough to tackle healing on a character I’ve never seen before, in a game I’ve never played). So really, fate had decided for us beforehand that we were going to team up with these guys.

Each team was then given an iPad by a Bioware employee, and asked to peruse the presentation on them about the Taral V flashpoint which included a brief rundown of the classes and their abilities. The presentation was also supposed to give us an idea of which role you wanted to play. Since our new friends had already claimed the Trooper Vanguard (tank) and Smuggler Scoundrel (healer) roles, that left the Jedi Consular Sage or the Jedi Knight Guardian. Since Sunday was the day I wanted to let my husband call the shots, I let him decide first. He chose the Consular, which I knew he would, as he does seem to have an affinity towards the ranged playstyle. That suited me just fine too, as I happen to love melee. And so that was how I took on the role of the Jedi Knight.

Next, we were let into an enclosed booth, where we got to sit down in really nice chairs (I know any seat would feel like heaven after that grueling wait, but they actually were really nice chairs). BioWare Product Marketing Manager Deborah Shin welcomed us and showed us a short video about five minutes long further explaining the flashpoint and focusing on each class and what they’re supposed to do. It wasn’t a strategy guide by any means; rather, it was informing us of the tactics each class is capable of, which could then lead to the formulation of multiple strategies.

We’ve seen many groups try many different things — some were successful, some were not. The boss fight method shown in the video of the Taral V Developer walkthrough is not the only way. In fact, during the hours waiting and watching, we saw many demo groups try just that and fail miserably. “Ping-ponging” aggro doesn’t really work so well when you’re four strangers playing without any form of effective communication. We were told that probably only 15 or 16 groups have managed to be successful in defeating the boss, working out to about 1 in 5. Later on, our booth helper told us it was probably lower than that, closer to only 1 in 7 groups that managed to succeed.

No matter what, our group just knew we wanted to nail this. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk between ourselves, but it was just barely enough to put together and agree upon the rudiments of a working strategy…

2. What we did:

After the presentation, we finally got to sit down at our demo stations. Ours went like this from left to right: Smuggler, Jedi Knight, Trooper, Jedi Consular. This later on turned out to be a pretty unfortunate set-up, but more on that later.

I sat myself down at the second machine, and quickly looked over my Jedi Knight abilities and tried to remember what I had read about them from the iPad presentation earlier. There was also a little card taped to my station that gave a little information. I was a level 32 Jedi Guardian who had a DPS role in this demo, but I was also heavily armored and specced in a way that I could cover some off-tanking duties as well. I saw by pressing “P” that I actually had a lot more abilities at my disposal, but BioWare had set it up so in this demo I was only supposed to utilize mainly the ones they had placed in my action bars.

They were arranged in a specific way — 5 of my main attack abilities were grouped up at the front of the top bar, for example. Then came a chunk near the left that made up my taunt abilities, another chunk that made up my focus-building abilities, then my buffs, recovery abilities, etc. I literally had seconds to familiarize myself with the set-up and gather my bearings before the demo started and we were playing in earnest.

First came a conversation with Jedi Master Oteg. Here, I finally got to see the multiplayer conversation system at work. Each player picks their answer from the dialogue wheel, and after everyone chooses, a random roll occurs and the highest one is the response that takes place. I could see in the lower left hand corner the numbers that were rolled. On the other side of our station was a group of onlookers watching our screen, and we could hear them keep chanting for us to pick the “evil” dialogue option. Well, we’d been waiting in line seeing people choose the “jerk” option in the demos all day! Just to annoy them, my husband kept picking the “good” option. And he also happened to win probably 80% of the random rolls so we got to witness his Jedi Consular’s answers almost every single time. I think my husband took pleasure in that, also when he called this system the “convo-loot” system.

So we’re off to the Imperial world of Taral V to rescue an imprisoned Jedi Master who is essential to the Republic war effort. The four of us made our way to the hangar bay and into the shuttle. We could see checkmarks appear above our heads as each player got ready. A short cutscene followed, showing our ship taking off and disappearing into the distant stars.

And then, we were in the jungle. Everyone buffed and filed in behind the Trooper. As the tank, we were going to let him lead the way.

Almost immediately, we saw our first hostile mobs. Close by, lightning struck, causing some brush fires as a Imperial ship landed in the distance, an unsettling sight. We engaged in combat, battling all manner of enemies from Imperial units like commandos and droids, to creatures like jungle beasts and lurkers as we made our way further down the path. Some mobs were stationary, like the Imperials standing on guard, but would charge you or attack as soon as you got in sight. Others like the beasts often ambushed us, popping up from the ground groups at a time to surround and converge on us.

I was a little hesitant at the beginning, not feeling very confident about my knowledge of my abilities, and unsure of the role I was to play in this group. Should I stick with DPS, or should I take the initiative and tank some mobs on my own since that was within my capabilities? Finally, I was just like, “Ah heck, no guts, no glory!” and charged in, taking on a more pro-active role, helping the tank whenever I could. I tried to always start off with my focus-building abilities, first hurling my lightsaber from afar (awesome!) before force leaping in to smash the enemy up close. We were always taking on groups, and while I found I was a good damage-dealer, I was also useful in sharing some of the damage with the Trooper while we were taking on big groups.

Usually, I let the tank take on a big mob while I ran around taking care of the weaker enemies. I noticed his friend playing the Smuggler was also helping us by getting into cover whenever he could, giving us defensive bonuses. My husband playing the Jedi Sage was vigilant in throwing out his crowd control abilities, and I was careful to avoid mobs that he had disabled. I had something like a Force Pull ability to taunt mobs off the two of them whenever they drew attention, and I also had an AoE taunt ability that I used once or twice during ambushes to quickly get them off our healer, while giving the tank time to engage.

We were here on Taral V to rescue a Jedi Master, but along the way there were also several optional objectives to complete, such as killing Imperial units and destroying research terminals. Our team did the latter whenever we could just to have the experience, but also to see the destruction it wreaked (the explosion that ensued often helped us damage whatever enemies we were fighting in the immediate area). Otherwise, our main goal was to get to the Imperial facility. Only half the flashpoint was playable for the demo, and we knew we weren’t going to be able to finish our bonus objectives. The minutes were also ticking by, and we were anxious to get a crack at the boss. We wanted as much time as we could, in case we needed more than one attempt.

Finally, we reached the facility. Our first order of business was to clear the mobs in the area. No harm in being too careful; we didn’t want to aggro any adds while fighting the boss.

The boss encounter is Captain Shivanek and his pet Ripper. Once Shivanek is engaged he will summon Ripper who bursts out beside him and charges the group. We’d already planned on me as the Jedi Guardian keeping the captain busy while the Trooper tanks the hulking beast. While we’d seen the developer walkthrough video and the way that group takes down Shivanek first and has the Trooper and Guardian share aggro for Ripper, we’d also witnessed countless groups that day fail to carry that method through. When the captain dies, Ripper enrages and does A LOT more damage, and we’d seen many tanks go down after that happens.

People forget that the group in the video most likely had had multiple attempts, and knew what they were doing. The players might even have had the ability to communicate between each other. The four of us sitting at the demo station did not really have that luxury. First of all, while all of us were sitting side-by-side in a row, the place was LOUD. There were tons of people everywhere surrounding the booth, and the noise was such that even to talk to the person sitting beside me, I had to shout myself hoarse to be heard. Add to that, we were also wearing headphones. Typing everything wasn’t going to work either. No, we had to come up with a way that didn’t require constant communication between me and the tank, or the tanks and the healer. Though we knew it was going to be a little tougher, we were also confident it could work.

Our strategy — to take them both down at the same time…together. Think the Romulo and Julianne fight in the World of Warcraft Karazhan raid instance.

So, it was up to me to initiate the encounter. I chucked my lightsaber at Captain Shivanek, and force leaped in to tank him. Ripper popped out, and the Trooper immediately fired on him to grab his attention. The Smuggler watched us both to keep us healed up, while my husband range-attacked both the captain and Ripper and kept an eye on their health bars to make sure they would go be going down at relatively the same rate.

Everything was going well…until the bosses were at about half health. That was when I saw my health bar faltering, and so did the Trooper’s. Our healer had been doing a wonderful job up until this point, so I knew something was going on. I looked to my left where he was sitting, and he turned to me and said (well, more like shouted) “I’m going to need back-up healing!” From there, even though we were sitting pretty close together, it was like a mini-game of broken telephone. I turned to the guy on my right, the tank, and shouted, “Tell the Sage we need back-up healing!” He then turned to my husband and shouted, “Back-up heals!”

Well, of course, by then it was a little too late. I found out afterward from the guy playing the Smuggler that he’d realized he had been using his “big” heals too generously. The Scoundrel’s strengths appeared to be his heals-over-time, and the other heals ate up his energy much too quickly. The Sage’s support didn’t come quick enough, and our Trooper went down.

At this point, I thought we were lost. No group I saw had ever lost the tank and not wiped. But those who were still alive fought desperately on anyway.

I continued smashing at Captain Shivanek, even as I was down to less than 50% health. I couldn’t see what was going on behind me, but I could assume Ripper was probably pummeling our Consular and Smuggler into dust. But…even after half a minute, everyone was still alive. I saw that Shivanek was down to about 15% health, and seeing as I still had some life in me, I pounded at him as hard as I could with my most damaging abilities. By some miracle, I survived when the captain finally died, and I quickly turned around to see if I could take Ripper, knowing he was now enraged and I was probably going to live for about two more seconds before he finished me off.

But when I turned around, Ripper was…dead? He was lying on the ground in front of the Jedi Sage. Later, my husband told me he had been “tanking” Ripper, and when Ripper died he had immediately turned around to see if he could help me with Shivanek only to see him dead on the ground in front of me as well. The two bosses must have gone down at exactly or almost exactly the same time.

You have to understand, this encounter itself wasn’t a very complicated fight, but our circumstances made it extremely so. We couldn’t very well talk to each other easily. The tank was dead and running back, so he had no idea what was happening with the fight. The healer couldn’t see target-of-target because the interface wasn’t set up for it in this particular demo, so he didn’t know what was going on with the bosses either. I was concentrating on Shivanek so I only had half the story, while my husband was focusing on Ripper so he had the other half. When we found both bosses dead, we all looked around at each other with totally perplexed looks and asked, “Did we win?” It wasn’t until our booth assistant beside us shouted “You guys did it!” that we finally cheered and started patting each other on the back.

Yes, we lost our tank. But now we knew our strategy was viable, if the Smuggler had conserved his energy a little and if the Sage had jumped in with back-up healing a little sooner. We were so happy to have killed the boss, which according to our booth assistant was what only a few groups she’d seen had managed to do.

After the Trooper ran back, we still had a little time until our 45 minutes were up, so we went around killing the mobs we missed. We also played around with the GUI and “/danced” our victory dance.

Playing around with the emotes was also when I typed in “/threaten”, making the text pop us as “You threaten everyone with an omnious stare” or something like that. “Omnious?” I pointed it out to the booth assistant and asked if they knew about that typo. Well, that would be my one itty-bitty contribution to the feedback process!

 

3. What I thought:

Okay, there will be people who will hate Taral V and SWTOR flashpoints in general just as there will be those who will absolutely adore it, and everything in between. I happen to be one of those people who enjoyed myself immensely, and I’ll say why.

First of all, if you’ve read some of my comments on group combat on this blog before, you’ll know that I am not necessarily anti-MMO holy trinity, but what I would prefer to see in the future is a more dynamic kind of MMO trinity in our instance encounters. I had suspected we would see this in SWTOR flashpoints, and after playing the Taral V demo, I can definitely say I saw some of this being realized.

Being in a four-person team, I felt our tasks were more evenly spread out. In other words, being in a smaller group than what we were used to, each of us felt like we had more of an obligation to “share the load”. In fact, the only person on the team that I felt was more “pigeonholed” than any of the others was the Trooper, whose tanking responsibilities remained pretty much necessary and static throughout the entire encounter. Even so, he was doing more damage than I would have expected from a tanking character. Me, I was either off-tanking or helping the others do DPS. The Scoundrel, our healer, took part in actively CCing and doing damage especially in our fight through the jungle.

And my husband the Consular…well, he stole the show. He was a ranged-damage dealer, but was also shocked to see himself do decent damage with his lightsaber as well. Not great damage — but it wasn’t as pathetic as you would expect from, say, a Mage swinging his staff. So he delighted in the fact he wasn’t completely helpless if any loose mobs got in his face. He also did plenty of crowd control, disabling enemies with a sort of force vortex. And of course, the Consular also has some healing abilities. In fact, I only survived our chaotic boss fight thanks to his heals at the end, even though they were small and I assume not as effective as the Scoundrel’s. He even tanked Ripper for about 20 seconds. When that happened, my husband told me he almost fell off his chair. The whole time, he’d thought of himself as playing a “clothie”, and as soon as Ripper headed for him after the Trooper went down, he thought he was a goner. He almost was, but simply by HoT-ing up himself and DoT-ing up Ripper, he was able to barely keep himself alive to finish the encounter.

I’m thinking the Consular will probably be one of the more interesting classes to play, in terms of mechanics and abilities.

I normally want to keep all comparisons of WoW separate from my discussions of other games, but I was reading a particular thread on the SWTOR forums last night, and I just can’t resist. Is having instances in your game like WoW? Is being able to tank, damage or heal as a group like WoW? Is having abilities you use on your action bar, being able to obtain and roll for loot, having health bars and mini-maps, fighting mobs and bosses etc. etc. etc. just like WoW? Yes, along with numerous other MMOs and even some RPGs out there, but make no mistake — While I think it’s absolutely right to say the mechanics resemble WoW, on the other hand  to say SWTOR flashpoints look “just like WoW” is also seeing only the similarities and ignoring a whole slew of differences. I for one thought that playstyle felt distinctively different.

Everything was fast-paced. Our group did not sit around before every single pull to mark and discuss who’s going to CC what. Nor did we go rushing in to AoE everything into oblivion. Every decision had to be specific, and made in a split second. Like I said, we had more of an obligation to share the load, watch out for each other to see where the gaps were in our tactics, and if you were able to, you filled them in as best you could. I flowed from one task to another — sometimes this meant switching over from damaging one mob to damaging the next, other times it meant going from damaging to off-tanking and vice versa. The only real pauses were after fights, where we all took a few moments to reload, regenerate or recover.

BioWare has made each class useful and capable of handling many different situations, something Blizzard finally figured out when they gave each class and spec viable roles in group play and things like effective CC abilities. I wouldn’t go as far as to call SWTOR classes hybrids; instead, I’d say each class has ample utility. For example, I think when you know you have a responsibility in the group beyond simply doing as much damage as you can, you are more likely to look around and ask yourself, “What does this situation require?” and “Can I provide that support?” If the answer is yes, you go ahead and you do it. You’re not worrying about whether or not you can top the damage meters today so your group won’t decide your DPS is too low and exclude you tomorrow; you are thinking for the good of the team and not just of yourself.

Not surprisingly, I felt a stronger sense of cooperation between my group members and myself while playing this demo than I’ve ever felt in an instance in ages. I really, really liked that. In supporting my team and knowing that they were in turn supporting me and each other, and in defeating our enemies this way and pressing ahead, I actually started to understand the feeling of being…heroic. I have to wonder how the raids in this game are going to be like. Apparently, being a hero isn’t going to be about the personal glory — it’s going to be knowing that in pulling a loose mob off your friend, or by tossing out that last minute heal, you just saved the day.

In terms of the combat and gameplay, it goes without saying that it was smooth as butter. BioWare has gotten the combat down as well as making the environment feel alive, as seen with the crashing ships and burning fires. They’ve also given us plenty to do in the instance, like optional and side quests. I think if you enjoy doing group content, you will probably like these flashpoints. And if you’re concerned that SWTOR will be too much of a “single-player game”, do something like this and hopefully it will assuage your fears.

Really, the major negatives of my experience didn’t come from within, it came from without. The throngs of people around and the small crowd in line watching and commenting on our playthrough being shown on the TV screen in front of us made for a huge distraction, and my lack of experience with the character didn’t help, and neither did our time limit, forcing us to learn our abilities as quickly as possible. It was a real baptism by fire, to say the least. I wish I could have heard more of the music in the game, but the exhibition hall was so effing loud that I couldn’t really catch much of it. Kinda made me wonder why they would provide us with such upscale clunky gaming mice, but not give us better quality headphones.

I did have issues with the user interface. It was nice and neat, and made your screen look clean, but one of the hardest things to get used to was knowing to watch your own health decrease this way <—, while watching your enemy target’s health decrease towards that way —>. However, it’s possible that these little things can be changed through interface options in the settings, along with stuff like seeing target-of-target, so I’m not too concerned. The UI itself looked pretty comprehensive, displaying all the information you’ll need to know about yourself and everything around you in your environment.

The only other couple of things I want to nitpick are small, possibly even trivial. The combat, as I’ve mentioned, was very fast-paced. Perhaps a little too fast. Speaking of which, I was pretty excited to be playing the Jedi Knight, hoping to observe some cool lightsaber forms as I was fighting, but the motions simply zipped by in a blur. Or maybe it just felt that way. I admit I was a little frazzled and my mind was overworked, trying to deal with all the stimuli bombarding me from all directions in-game as well as out of the game. The other thing is that when you die, you spawn at the closest med-station, which is at the beginning of the flashpoint. This is pretty standard procedure, but in most other games you are confined to a dungeon or a small area, not running like a mile through the jungle just to get back to the first boss, which is what our Trooper had to do. It felt really, really long. I wonder if they will put in checkpoints in the final product.

So, was waiting hours and hours worth it? Hell yeah it was. You might wonder why BioWare didn’t just decrease the amount of time players are allowed at each station, cut down a 45-minute demo to say, 15 minutes in order to get more people through. God knows I asked myself the same thing enough times while I was waiting impatiently in line. But after playing it, I have to admit, any less time would not have done the flashpoint demo justice. I wouldn’t have been able to utilize my class to its full potential, learn the synergies between myself and others, get immersed in the story, or make all my other observations otherwise.

In closing, after playing the demo, I had myself a thought. I love MMOs, I love BioWare, I love Star Wars. I am totally going to buy this game. In the end, however, I figure BioWare probably isn’t targeting players like me — that is, gamers who have a game blog, who spend time viewing gaming discussions, following the news day-by-day, picking apart everything that comes out, talking about specific mechanics in online communities with other gamers, etc. No, BioWare has alluded to this many times before — they want to make a fun game to appeal to a wide audience, from the MMO veteran to the beginner online gamer.

Most gamers are your average player simply looking for a good time in an MMO. Well, my husband’s like that. He doesn’t follow gaming, and is pretty much happy as long as he’s playing whatever I’m playing. He doesn’t ask for much — only that he can play a game that works, something that’s fun and has a well filled-out world, something that gives him a challenge and plenty enough cool stuff to do. Well, if you’ve actually made it through this monster of a post to get to this point, you know my thoughts. Mr. MMOGC, on the other hand, is a lot more succinct. His first words immediately after playing the demo as he took off his headphones and got up from his seat? They were, “That was AWESOME.” Take that as you will.