SWTOR’s race problem

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Yesterday on SWTOR’s dev stream, BioWare revealed that it will be rolling out a subscriber rewards program (to no one’s surprise). As much as I’m liking Knights of the Fallen Empire so far, I have to say that I’m not inclined to feel very generous to the studio’s marketing efforts here.

Maybe it’s because we’ve already seen version 1.0 of subscriber rewards earlier this year. Remember? Remember how BioWare was pushing subscriptions so dang hard based on the promise of a COMPANION! And… um… his CAR! And… dang it… his COAT! And GUNS!

Can you tell I was generally unimpressed with these extras? Because I totally was. Especially the crappy coat. Man, that was a dull design that totally wasn’t the duster that Niko wore in the opening cinematic.

Anyway, so version 2.0 has two rewards announced so far (are they the only two?) — getting HK-55 as a companion and getting to play as HK in a special questline/chapter. This marks the 50th time that BioWare’s gone back to the HK well with SWTOR. It’s almost as bad as how Star Trek got with the Borg. Yes, it was popular once. It might still be really cool except you drove it into the ground, then buried it, then dug it back up and put on a parade with its corpse.

BioWare is the most begrudging studio I’ve ever seen when it comes to its free-to-play model. It has it. It offers it. And it clearly loathes that it’s had to include it. Want to be F2P? No expansion chapters for you! And no HK! Nyah nyah! No way to buy those a la carte, no sirree.

My companion dance card is already full (and I have HK-51, so why do I need another one?), but more importantly, the whole play-as-HK thing feels as a tease. You know what I wish the developers would actually spend their time on? Kicking down the fence of character barriers and open up the game to embrace the fuller Star Wars body of races.

Am I the only one who’s more than tired of playing yet another very-similar-to-human race? This is freaking Star Wars. Remember Galaxies? You could play as a Wookiee or a Mon Calamari there. A decade later, we’re in a game that’s restricted its immigration policy to only allow the least interesting races.

If BioWare can scoot off its butt and figure out ways to fix its story, it can fix its racial problem too. There are options, even if it’s just a cosmetic overlay. Let me play as a droid. Or a Jawa. Or Second Lieutenant John Ackbar. Something other than a regular person, a green person, a gray person, a person with head tails, a person with totally different head tails, and a cat person.

I think I’ve complained about this before. I’m sure I have. But if BioWare wanted to put out subscriber rewards that really tempted me, it would make more than just HK playable — and for more than a mere side quest.

SWTOR: Kneeling for power

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Between Fallout and the baby, I’ve fallen away from SWTOR a bit (and by that I mean “haven’t touched it at all for almost two weeks). So instead of getting back into chapter 9 hoovering-companions-up-everywhere activities, I decided to return to my Smuggler and try to get her through the story as well.

I’ve allowed my subscription to lapse for a couple of months, since there’s no real reason for me to spend the money right now until the next chapter of Knights of the Fallen Empire comes out. I planned for it by spending most of my credits on cartel packs to get under the 350K limit, and when I logged in all was well other than a slight nagging screen courtesy of BioWare. Yes, BioWare, I’m a big boy, I know what I’m doing. I will absorb the consequences.

I have missed my Smuggler. She’s quite similar to the operative, to be sure, but I like her battle rotation more. Plus, gunslinging two pistols is somehow cooler than wielding a single blaster rifle.

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KNEEL BEFORE ZOD!

One of the advantages of going back through this story is being able to explore the choices you didn’t the first time around. Since my Smuggler was always in the morally grey territory, she decided to embrace the dark side and kneel before the Emperor to get his power. Why not? Most powerful Smuggler in the galaxy. I like the sound of that.

I blitzed through chapter 1 and got part of the way through 2 before sleep demanded my audience. I was cheering to see Corso Riggs depart for good (oh, you think I’m going to pick him back up? Think again.) and less happy to see him take my precious ship away. I will miss Guss until our reunion in the future, but I’ll be happy to see HK-55 once more — even if just for the limited time we have together.

SWTOR: Retro isn’t always the way to go

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Like many current SWTOR players, I was taken aback at the abrupt change in the conversation window that happens with Knights of the Fallen Empire’s chapter 9. Up until that point, SWTOR uses BioWare’s tried-and-true conversation wheel (with its three patented choices!). Then, starting in chapter 9, a good chunk of conversations utilize a much older BioWare design — one that goes all the way back to the original Knights of the Old Republic.

Maybe it’s a nostalgia thing, but I side with those who say that it’s a budget-saving move on behalf of the studio. As these new chat sessions don’t feature any actual voiced dialogue by your character (just who you’re talking to), I’m sure it saved BioWare money and time to lug in all 16 of the voice actors for additional recordings.

But it doesn’t work. BioWare claimed that this makes for more detailed conversations with additional choices, but… who cares? It’s changing one of the key systems of a story-based MMO in midstream with no convincing in-game explanation for it. No one was clamoring for it. It doesn’t add to the experience. And it’s distracting enough that it’s making gamers like me take time to complain about it.

It’s not a deal-breaker, of course, and at least the main storyline still has a lot of cinematic interactions with the traditional conversation wheel. I continue to be impressed by how much the game’s involving multiple companions during cutscenes — last night, the Gravestone’s engineer even had a funny interchange with HK-51, which I would never have expected BioWare to program (considering not everyone got this HK).

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I am pretty excited about how the game’s opening up during this chapter to send me around the galaxy to round up an alliance of influential folk for this campaign. It’s nothing new to the studio, of course; BioWare’s been doing this sort of thing in Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition, and I guess figured that why not go to the well again? I love the studio, but it does like to repeat its own techniques and story beats a little too often.

At least it gives me a lot to do with the promise of interesting interchanges. I would have been really disappointed if the story had just abruptly ended here and made me wait until 2016 for the next part. As it stands, I’ll have my hands full for the next couple of months on this character alone — and I haven’t even gotten my Smuggler into the new expansion yet!

SWTOR: I have a good feeling about this

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Is anyone else wearing out their screenshot key with the new SWTOR expansion? Because I can’t stop hitting mine.

About the only bad thing of Knights of the Fallen Empire is my worry that I’m going through it too fast. I’m already in Chapter 6, and that’s taking it the Syp pokey route. And it is so good that I do not want these adventures to end. It really feels like a return to BioWare’s top storytelling form, with humor, surprises, goosebump moments, interesting new characters, and a gripping narrative.

Fortunately, I was told by my friend Larry that the end of Chapter 9 doesn’t mean that we will be spinning our wheels until Chapter 10 comes out in January. Apparently there’s a whole bunch of new endgame activities to do, including revamped and additional dungeons and a companion collecting system. I’m down with that. I would hate to pick back up my Agent only to abandon her to the void a couple of weeks later.

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I have had to shut off general chat because people can be so spoiler-happy in there. And I won’t be dropping any major story beats here, as much as I’m really dying to talk about a few things.

But in general, I’m really liking how the expansion is taking us out of our comfort zones and giving us a different type of experience altogether. I haven’t seen my ship in a week. I’m much more aware of the key villains and am getting to know them more from a variety of perspectives.

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And one of my most requested features of SWTOR for ages now has been kinda answered — my companions are having a lot more interaction with each other. I still can’t take more than one out at a time and listen to them talk/argue (or as HK calls it, “meatbag bickering), but there are scads of cutscenes in which dialogue reigns supreme.

BioWare really touted how choices will have more of an impact this time around and I’m still waiting to see how that plays out. I think the reason that I choose things isn’t necessarily what the devs/game figured are the important factors (no, BioWare, I do not like Lana and am never, ever going to be nice to and/or save her).

So hopefully I’ll finish up the current storyline within the next week and see what’s next for my Agent. It’ll be really interesting to go back through this expansion with a different character, I think.

The SWTOR Awakens

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Like roughly the entire population of the world, I watched the full trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens probably way too many times over the past 24 hours. The whole film to me is full of unknowns (including whether it will be, y’know, good or not), but what I’m seeing, I’m liking. I really appreciate how it’s not wall-to-wall lightsabers and Jedis, how there is a sad tone, how there’s this multi-generational thing going on, and how the old that we’ve loved is being married to something new and potentially wonderful.

Also, it reminds me how old I’ve gotten since I was a seven-year-old watching Return of the Jedi in the movie theaters.

Anyway, BioWare had to be loving the fact that the movie trailer came out the same day that Knights of the Fallen Empire — SWTOR 2.0, in effect — started its early access launch. They probably loved it because it was intentional, but still, people into the game felt extra-jazzed because of the trailer.

Unlike people who took off the day from work or school, I stayed fairly responsible. There’s a pressure to want to get into the new story and not fall behind the crowd, but heck, even as I type this I’m sure someone’s finished chapter 9 already. Might as well take my time and enjoy the ride.

Besides, I had a lot to do. WildStar gets top priorities for Shade’s Eve (being time-constricted and all). Then after that, the SWTOR launcher decided that it simply wasn’t going to work right, requiring me to restart it a dozen times before I could log in.

And then came the character maintenance. No matter how “prepared” you were for the expansion, there was just a lot to do here. The game gave me a complete set of new purple gear that was presumably better than what I had, so I had to put that on. Then I needed to respec my utility points. Then there was some mail to sort through, blasters to resocket, and squeeing over the addition of the random mount/pet buttons.

Finally, my Smuggler needed to wrap up all of her companions’ storylines, which took an hour and a half to do. I really, really wish BioWare told me a week ago that this update would negate the need to dump tons of money into companion gifts, as now you can get through the companions’ dialogue as long as you’ve advanced through your storyline. Seriously, WHY DID THEY NOT TELL US THIS IN ADVANCE. This studio, I tell you, they do not do a good job communicating things ahead of time. It kind of makes me think that they’re scrambling to the last minute to get everything ready.

Anyway, the companion thing was compounded by the fact that Corso (ugh Corso) had three actual missions that required some planet hopping. Why yes, Corso, I’d love to cruise around the butt nowhere of Tatooine for you instead of checking out that hawt new expansion content. Spending time with you is always more exciting than festering in a sarlaac pit!

Mark my words, if I get a choice in the expansion to kill Corso, I will. Without batting an eye. Wouldn’t mind doing Lana in too. Man, how I have fallen to the Dark Side.

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Finally, finally I was able to do what I wanted to all day: to play the new story content with my Operative. I haven’t done any new story content with her in months, so it was a joyous reunion to be back aboard her sleek ship and taking back on the role of the galaxy’s best spy.

I only got through the first chapter of the expansion, but that’s fine — don’t want to blow through it all in a week, after all. It’s very much a different experience than what’s come before, with a more cinematic style, a completely solo instance, no companions (for the most part), and a great shake-up of the Republic/Empire cold war that had dominated the game since launch.

I loved playing my light side Operative again. She gets done what needs to get done, but she’s also going to look out for others in the process. The fights were very tame, which was fine since I was getting back into the groove of that character’s rotation.

The first chapter, which took me about an hour and a half, felt like a prologue more than anything else. I liked seeing my character in chains and thrust into a more hopeless situation. I really liked how she got far more emotive than in the past — you could sense the righteous fury coming off of her at one point. And I even got to use the magically disappearing blaster(tm) that comes standard with all Agents.

Really looking forward to what happens next. It’s going to be agonizing to complete chapter nine and have to wait until the new year for more story, but that’s a good sort of pain. Kind of how I always felt with The Secret World. SWTOR needed to step up its narrative game and I think it just might have done that.