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The Bolster System, or The Guardian’s New Clothes

April 17, 2013 1 comment

“Going into a Warzone completely naked will now be worse than wearing gear.”patch notes 2.0.0b, official commentary.

Shades of Ilum all over again.

First, Naked Bolster. Well-intentioned idea, designed to aid the true lowbie who simply hasn’t filled out some gear slots (helmet, mostly) got entirely out of hand and morphed into the new normal for everyone.

Amazingly, the first iteration of the new bolster system, whose intent was to make obsolete gear competitive, managed to single out and penalise precisely those bits of obsolete gear that most returning PvPers would like spruced up temporarily, i.e. old War Hero/Elite War Hero, Recruit MkII and perhaps even older sets; we can assume that players who returned for RotHC may be dusting off some long untended characters. Because of the inclusion of expertise in their item budget, these were quite literally valued the worst.

Presently, we are at a place where expertise and non-expertise items are treated as separate by the bolster system. It is officially a bad idea to mix and match mods with and without expertise on them, which is a little annoying to tank Guardians who occasionally choose stamina over expertise. And the old sets? WH/EWH are tolerable, just, because expertise was emergency-stripped from these items. Anything below is not recommended for use, though it baffles me why it couldn’t have been restatted in the same way as WH/EWH. By the devs’ admission, the system is still definitely in flux, and initial reports indicate that half-decent level 55 PvE gear arguably outshines the new entry-level Partisan PvP gear in PvP.

While I find all this mostly amusing, some people are predictably very cross. And even I am a little worried about the amount of confusion introduced into the system by all these changes. For the casual PvPer, whom we want to attract to warzones, the feeling that others are privy to some arcane bolstering tricks can be extremely discouraging.

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Categories: PvP

2.0 or May the Force™ Be With You

April 15, 2013 Comments off

Yes, they actually use the trademark character, as exemplified by Damion Schubert’s valediction in the 2.0 developer blog post. Yes, it bothers the hell out of me infringes upon the serene Soresu mindset. Yes, I know: what? Star Wars? commercial?

However, it is time to accentuate the positive. I was going to write up a bitter little prune of a post tracking the further WoW-ification of TOR, with direct comparisons to past WoW-patches, but I think I have submitted my MMO of choice to enough tough love already. The truth is, I am enjoying Makeb. The expansion landed flawlessly in the technical sense, it looks great visually, and it is a pleasure to quest in.

The storyline is not bad at all, and the writing and dialogue options manage to skate the boundary between spirited and corny. Even the voice acting – on my Knight, at least – sounds a little more peppy than before. I am not much of an achievement hound – in the sense of ticking arbitrary boxes supplied by the devs – but the system is a handy tracker for the parts of exploration I actually care about, and it’s more or less industry-standard by this point. Come to think of it, I wonder whether they fixed Taris completion?

Having been one of those dumb sods who missed their pre-order EA cutoff, I am not yet in position to check out the new instances. However, mini-tanking opportunities in heroic quests are fun, and the class feels much improved. Better mobility, better cleave, better overall focus generation. People have criticised Saber Reflect for its poor synergy with avoidance stats (an avoidance streak can nullify its use entirely) but given my defensive preoccupations, the reflect component is not all that important to me. I still get a few seconds of extra safety and, through Daunting Presence, an AoE threat cooldown which is never unwelcome for a Guardian.

None of this makes me a fan of the F2P thing, and I find myself wondering how things would be if the team had managed to hold on to the sub model for a little longer. However, it is safe to conclude at the very least that the weeks of gnashing one’s teeth and looking the other way as the tacky nickel-and-diming kicked into high gear are rewarded with a quality addition to the game presumably made possible by that revenue. The question does linger as to how long this content will last, and whether it will bolster TOR’s critical mass of regular concurrent users, given that the questing itself is going rather quickly. I will always have the inexhaustible stimulation of warzones, but the game needs to hold on to its rai… uh, operators this time around.

And now, back to actually playing it.

Thoughts on the Occasion of TESO Beta

January 26, 2013 Comments off

My time in SW:TOR has been serene and pleasant, if a little uneventful lately. The Guardian main’s health pool was not quite where I’d like it to be by current standards, and so I’ve spent some time grinding out the last War Hero’s Elusive mods to swap in. As an alternative to warzones, I am slowly plinking at the storylines of two alts – the Marauder and a Sorcerer. I enjoy the subversive nature of doing good on the former, and the comedy of unadulterated evil on the latter… evil backed up by an excellent damage dealer’s toolbox, even at the underdeveloped stage. I’ve always known in theory why the sorcies were so good at tearing me apart, but it is quite another thing to place one’s own hands on the controls.

Earlier in the week, however, a stone broke the surface of the pond: ZeniMax opened up the TESO beta.

I tossed my name into the hat, and it got me thinking about this next big themepark with a solid IP, and the first which had the benefit of drawing lessons from the roller-coaster ridden by the MMO industry in 2012.

For one thing, it is worth underscoring yet again that The Elder Scrolls Online is a themepark. I can think of no other modern brand that would lend itself better to a sandbox treatment, but here we are nonetheless. The themepark customer is the one being sought and, I suspect, will continue to be sought by the industry this year and beyond.

The predecessor from which TESO borrows most heavily is undoubtedly Guild Wars 2. Three factions. GW2-heart-like questing paradigm. Public quests with instanced loot. Weapon-based skill system. Reduced number of active abilities, radically-increased emphasis on their correct situational use. ‘Vignettes’ rewarding thorough exploration of the world.

Fully voiced quests, though. You’re welcome.

TESO-specific innovations include a single world (as opposed to realms/shards) with players assigned intelligently to phases based on a preferred-activity questionnaire they filled out (“eHarmony”, quipped a friend), guild allegiance and others they find themselves grouping with generally. To be honest, I am not happy with this, and not just because they’re injecting a Facebook/Twitter angle into it. I know that some people consider their existing friends’ list the only relevant social filter, but I like servers. I like the idea of meeting strangers in the wild in a persistent world and emergent server communities with distinct flavours. At least with a game like EVE, players, corps and alliances do end up sorting themselves geographically (astrographically?) anyway, achieving the effect of local colour. This, though? 15%RP/20%PvE/35%PvP/30%Exploration Phase represent!

Having staked out their single-shard position, ZeniMax immediately backtracks, sorting players who wish to participate in TESO’s Cyrodiil open-PvP area into separate campaigns which will be named after Tamriel’s cities, and sound awfully like realms. Each campaign will last for months and culminate in the capture of the Ruby Throne.

Cyrodiil sounds interesting, as such things always do when described by developers. Of course, one could describe the original Alterac Valley in WoW in similar language – paths for individuals, small groups and large groups to contribute to victory, some involving PvE rather than direct PvP activities, opportunities for asymmetrical warfare. What ends up happening in practice involves large zergs circling the area, desultorily gobbling up objectives and smaller groups of stragglers, and the most direct, uninventive route to victory (dare one say: path of least resistance?) being pursued with remarkable tunnel vision.

That said, it is going to be a huge Oblivion-sized map, and the campaign will be long term, so perhaps it will pan out differently this time. Some of the top men on the developer team come from Mythic, with DAoC experience, which may have a bearing on Cyrodiil’s design, but that lineage has been, perhaps unsurprisingly, downplayed by the team itself.

Another potentially refreshing feature of TESO is the emphasis on mob AI, which is supposed to be very aware of its surroundings and think synergistically. So, mobs attacking a fighter might try to kite him, whereas the same mobs might rush a caster; or they might assume tank and dps roles. Players are, it is said, going to get greater opportunities than in previous games for combining their class abilities intelligently, too. On top of all this, if I understand correctly, one gets directly rewarded for how skillfully one fought any mob, so even if you are alone, staying out of the fire gets you better loot or xp. Rewarding merit is always welcome, and it might break up the monotony of mob-grinding that sometimes afflicts WoW-likes, including my MMO of choice.

Incidentally, the Tamriel Foundry has done excellent work in compiling and maintaining early information on the game, so I take the liberty of outsourcing my sourcing to that splendid collection of fanatics.

While I have not yet played this game, and a lot of my notions of how it will play may be wildly off the mark, I do think it is fair to lump it together with Guild Wars 2 as part of a push-back against the WoW model. It reminds me of the recent fleeting fashion in American political commentary, which is to talk about how Bill Clinton’s acceptance of the Reagan rightward paradigm shift validated it as a true inflection point, whereas President Obama’s reversal has yet to be similarly entrenched. If there is something to the notion that a rival’s appropriation of one’s ideas is their best affirmation, then Guild Wars 2 may gain a little more credibility as genre-changer with TESO’s release.

Categories: Other MMOs, PvP

Guardian PvP, Quick Endorsement

May 1, 2012 Comments off

Players who frequent the official forums will probably have seen this, but I would like to give props to Ladispute of The Watchmen on The Corsair server for his daily (as long as he keeps it up, at least) Guardian PvP stream:

http://www.twitch.tv/ladisputepvp

You may quarrel with some of the things you see, and he readily admits that his pure-defence playstyle will be less effective in pug warzones without at least a couple Watchmen mates. However, the man is personable, polite and committed to Guardian PvP education, answering even the most inane questions patiently on his stream’s chat. We don’t have many resources of this quality for beginners, and we ought to be grateful.

Ladispute runs War Leader gear (yes, with defence/absorb) and his commitment to his deep defence build is endearing, because it captures the essence of what a tank ought to be in PvP. He’s a snaring, guard-switching, cc-ing machine, a node holder/force multiplier without much interest in personal damage. I jumped that ship almost immediately after 1.2, and I stand by the decision, but I do feel compromised by it.

The basic debate over tank PvP specs at the moment is: Hilt Strike + Inner Peace in Defence versus Commanding Awe + Overhead Slash + Force Rush in Vigilance, with Stasis Mastery of course being the pivot everyone takes. I expect Ladispute goes through its motions with freshly-baptised 1.2 CA Guardians daily – I certainly gave him one. To the argument that ranged/melee mitigation is near useless because most classes’ powerful specials are all force/tech attack types, which bypass it, his answer is to do a better job interrupting and ccing damage dealers while retaining the benefits of said mitigation. To the argument that the CA spec provides a huge jump in offensive potential at the cost of very little mitigation loss, he insists that we are better off taking another CC (Hilt Strike) and protecting those classes which can actually deal massive damage. Easy to say, mutters the cynic, when you are assured the presence of players worthy of such single-minded protection in your premades, but it is a wholesome attitude very much in the Soresu spirit.

Anyway, worth checking out the stream, at least for as long as it lasts.

Categories: PvP

1.2 PvP or the Loser Reward Conundrum

April 15, 2012 1 comment

My optimism with regard to TOR’s PvP changes in patch 1.2 was a little premature. I don’t mean the absence of rated warzones, which I suspect has something to do with the recent spasm of generosity toward level 50 (later amended) subscribers. I don’t mean how fast-paced and blappy the battles have become. I mean the business about accessibility and streamlined metagame. If anything, it has turned out to exacerbate faction imbalance by another step.

I have consumed a lorry-load of humble pie over the weekend, including a minor philosophical surrender: having taken another hard look at the value of ranged and melee (as opposed to tech/Force) mitigation in PvP, I have concluded that running a pure defence spec is a quixotic enterprise. The new Commanding Awe talent alone, making Focused Defence a formidable blanket defensive cooldown, is equivalent to most of the talents sheared off the top of the Defence tree. I am still higher in Defence than most specs, but I’m finding the Vigilance talents to be very helpful with little survivability trade-off. The rest of the pie had to do with my Republic teams being roundly and consistently spanked the vast majority of the time. While 1.2 allowed more blue-on-blue matchups, Republic is still preferentially pitted against Empire, and, frankly, tends to lose.

I am, by temperament, stoic about defeat. There are limits to my own dexterity (and the overall transition from PvP healer to melee dps/TOR-unique PvP tank took a while) and there are always lessons to be learned and operand conditioning to be hammered in. I do not take it personally, and I am reluctant to blame external circumstances for it unless the evidence really is conclusive. In the end, somewhere along the way, we sucked and need to l2p. Fair enough. I am also aware of, and quite sternly vigilant about, the tendency to overestimate one’s own misfortune and suffering, leading to taking victories for granted and whining about losses. No skewed perceptions in this case.

The pattern I’ve observed this weekend was consistent: slightly undermanned Republic team zones into the warzone, against a slightly better geared Imperial team. The tide turns against the Republic. Sensing the low likelihood of victory, several Republic players leave. The outcome becomes inevitable, and the rest of the team huddles forlornly at our single node. The loss rewards the Empire as victories always have, while (as of 1.2) giving the losing Republic very little. A few matches down the road, the gear disparity grows, as does Imperial unit cohesion (fewer quitters, more familiar team, better practiced patterns) and the loss pattern solidifies. The occasional weaker/new Imperial player is carried successfully and retains interest in PvP, becoming more skilled and geared. His Republic equivalent may ragequit. The pool of recruits for inter-guild premades is larger on the more successful side, leading to… and so on and so forth.

We’d been down this road before, of course. The early-quitters are making an arguably correct (if dishonourable) prisoner’s-dilemma choice, because, inexplicably, Bioware has yet to copy from WoW any penalties for leaving warzones early. I’ve seen the same person run from the sinking ship, requeue, and end up in the same match they’d left, if it took us discourteously long to lose it. The other, less straightforward issue is that of very poor rewards for the losing side.

The amount of Valor, Commendations, and credits awarded at the end of a Warzone is now based on your team’s score, with a bonus for the winning team. Experience rewards are still based on the amount of time spent in the Warzone.

I am typically the sort of fellow who would applaud this. Not quite with a snarling Gevlonesque contempt for the weak, but out of a sense of justice. A loss is a loss (is a loss) and vae victis. It should not be about punching the clock; a real stake enlivens the game. And a victory alongside the weak, against the odds, brings more satisfaction and glory. However (and it’s really not because the lash is on my hide, honest) I do wonder about the sustainability of the faction imbalance in the long run. Was Blizzard on to something when it chose to award, back in the mist-shrouded days of patch 1.8, a third of the spoils to the losing side?

Categories: Mechanics, Mentality, PvP

Grind

April 4, 2012 Comments off

“A film which followed the code of the Hays Office to the strictest letter might succeed in being a great work of art, but not in a world in which a Hays Office exists.” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Far too many pixels have been darkened in MMO literature on the subject of the hamster wheel, that is to say repetitive tasks in expectation of future fun, for me to have any hope of bringing forward anything original. Still, the grind is where I am and therefore what I must write about.

On the surface of the question, grind is good. It is the primary form of content, especially at level cap. It encourages long-term planning and the deferment of gratification, which, we can all agree, are virtuous. The problem arises when the grind becomes a prerequisite to something fundamental, rather than the result of one’s own goals and drive to improve oneself above the baseline. My immediate example of concern: in SW:TOR, to PvP at 50 without Centurion/Champion gear is very painful indeed. It is a very good idea to acquire Valor Rank 50 the moment one hits level 50. It is not unfair to say that at release, grinding warzones from 40 onward was fairly close to a pre-requisite for rewarding PvP at level 50. To do this diligently in any reasonable amount of time meant missing out on a lot of PvE, hitting the warzone/merc comm cap repeatedly and uselessly, and, quite frankly, being put to the yoke.

I enjoy warzones a great deal. I will queue over and over again all evening if I feel that it is my idea to do so. However, I bristle at being compelled to do them solely in order to keep afloat down the road. To rephrase Adorno, with apologies to the great Frankfurter, a sequence of MMO activities that matched the demands of the grind to the strictest letter might succeed in being fun, but not in a world where the grind exists.

The Ilum balancing errors added insult to injury, allowing a small proportion of Imperial players, over the course of a brief window of opportunity, to attain easily something that required a lot of hard work from the rest of us. But never mind.

Never mind, because the greater insult comes knocking against our band-aids with 1.2 and Recruit gear. Recruit gear, like WoW’s crafted entry-level PvP gear, ought to have been in place from the beginning. To add it now, and make it superior to Champ/Cent, along with the change to the warzone/mercenary commendation conversion ratio, does considerably diminish the value of pre-1.2 effort. The sentiment is expressed more vividly and rather without bloodless Jedi detachment in several threads on the official forums.

Had I known this was coming, I may still have played many matches, but I might have felt more free to vary my fare. Sessions of ‘log on, resolve to quest a little or play with an alt, suddenly remember that I need to travel to Carrick to pick up my PvP daily, play warzones, complete daily, stare forlornly at ever-low Valor Rank and play more warzones, log off’ were becoming a little tiresome even to a stalwart aficionado of the game. I am afraid that Bioware, in this instance, managed to usher in the worst of both worlds, until further tweaks are done, the dust settles and only traces of bitterness remain.

I do wish to make clear that I do not begrudge anyone their Recruit gear. In fact, I view gear progression a little differently from most people. I do not experience the gambler’s, collector’s joy at having my piece drop, even as I observe how real and important that aspect is to most. Gear, in my mind, is solely a tool to do the job. I would be happy with egalitarian systems in both PvE and PvP where everyone is equipped similarly and the rewards come from ladder rankings, win ratios, boss kill dates, and so on, though I understand how quixotic that position is.

However, love of gear, when requited, leads to gear inflation. Which impacts one’s ability to do the job in a particular set of gear negatively. Which leads one back to the treadmill. I’d thought about this recently in connection with my short-lived return adventure in WoW. At Cata’s release, a fresh 85 in quest and reputation blues would have been able to heal or tank what is now regarded as a ‘regular’ heroic, if the rest of the group employed patience, care and crowd control. At Cata’s twilight, that same player is a considerable drag on a group which attempts to storm the place Wrath-style. It’s not that solving the problem is too hard – gold flows like water, crafted and BoE pieces are readily available and discounted, and punching the clock in battlegrounds can assist via honour-to-JP conversion. The principle, however, remains: expectations rise, and again, it is the grind to meet a mere baseline that is irksome.

Categories: Mentality, Other MMOs, PvP

Guardian PvP or Back In The Speeder Seat

March 15, 2012 1 comment

The magpie in me couldn’t resist picking up Skyrim on Steam sale a few weeks back. I suppose everyone has to go through Skyrim – it’s like the mumps.

However, in between electrocuting Stormcloaks, I have also been playing in SW:TOR warzones a lot, in my PvE tank spec. As I consider this fact, I begin to believe that my continued enjoyment of TOR may have a lot to do with the fact that I don’t really play it as Bioware intended. I like its flashpoints (so far – I will see how bad those hardmode enrage timers are when I get there) and I have been trying to squeeze as much fun as I can out of its hit-and-miss PvP. I tried to see how far I can get in that bleedin’ space arcade game without fitting expensive mods to my corvette. The answer, by the way, is the Drexel Sweep mission – it is mathematically impossible to survive its incoming damage even with Level 3 upgrades and the power conversion module helps tremendously. I have been testing myself against group missions solo, though I did have to outlevel quite a few 4+ heroic missions to succeed. I have even indulged a bit of roleplaying. Anything but consuming the story in a linear way, which is what I am constantly told is all that SW:TOR is good for, if that.

I have been intrigued by the tank role in warzones ever since the taunting of players was mentioned as a worthwhile PvP move, back during development. Previously, the only experience I had with tank PvP was in WoW, facing protection healadins back when they were essentially broken and immortal and maybe the occasional odd-composition team using a prot warrior for control. But here is TOR giving tanks an actual tanky niche.

As a defence-specced Guardian, I am rather bad at dealing damage. I eke out the 75k medal consistently (this is in the sub-50 bracket, in my 40s) but unless I am willing to blow all my one-minute cooldowns, I frequently feel like I’m whipping an opponent with a styrofoam bat, not a lightsaber. I’ve seen defence Guardians do better, and it has a lot to do with my own skill level and playstyle, but it is a fact that we cannot match the effectiveness of, say, a vanguard/powertech tank in PvP at the moment. QQ is unbecoming of a Jedi, so we work with what we have to work with.

The most important tools at my disposal are not damage dealing tools. They are Guard, Taunt and Challenging Call. Second in importance are control abilities: Freezing Force, Force Push, Force Stasis, Hilt Strike. A Guardian’s strategic merits are longevity (defensive cooldowns, Enure) and mobility via Force Leap. Good for Huttball carrying (and allowing, once in a blue moon, for little brilliancies like Force Pushing an enemy onto his own goal ledge then leaping at him to circumvent hazards) or lasting a few extra seconds on defence of a node in Voidstar or Civil War. Actual damage-dealing – ideally some combination of Force Push/Saber Throw/Leap followed by Blade Storm/Guardian Slash, combat focus, rinse and repeat – is last in priority.

Guardians guard, which means both mitigating damage and peeling. We usually guard healers, who, if they are far-sighted, reciprocate with healing to keep their bodyguard alive. Guard has a limited range, so it is a mistake to Guard someone and then run off to the other end of the map. Guard should be hotkeyed and liberally applied to anyone who’s taking a lot of damage. Taunt should be applied to any high-damage enemy on cooldown, though I find that I generally prefer to focus on one beleaguered comrade and try to keep them safe with all the tools at my disposal, including taunting whatever’s attacking them.

To obsess over the point a little more, I’m particularly bad at dealing damage because, when I don’t run around creating friction for the enemy, I tend to fixate on objectives. I’ll be that guy clicking on the Voidstar door again and again and again  – hey, as a Guardian, if I’m forcing them to shoot at me and soaking damage, that’s success. I’d experimented once or twice with concentrating on killing people above all else – my damage numbers shot up, of course, but still weren’t especially impressive compared to dedicated dps classes, and I felt I wasn’t doing my job.

I look forward to hitting level cap with the Guardian soon – apart from Skyrim, real life had bitten hard for a little while – and sampling warzones and hardmodes with the big boys. Already mulling over some conflicting advice, such as whether to collect dps gear or proper defence gear for tank-PvP at 50.

Categories: Mechanics, PvP