How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Phantom Menace

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the release of The Phantom Menace, and that seems to me a good excuse to look back on Episode I and its place in fandom, especially my own.

I am among the first generation of Star Wars fans and the return of Star Wars to the larger pop culture landscape in 1999 was a very big deal indeed. The movie’s cast was overflowing with well-known and well-regarded actors, and the marketing push was enormous. I’d never stopped being a Star Wars fan even after Return of the Jedi faded from memory, but the prospect of seeing a brand new Star Wars film on the big screen was something I’d given up on. It’s so very different today when it feels like Star Wars will never go away.

However, even before the movie’s premiere, there were murmurs of discontent, and after release some fans had strong negative reactions to the movie. I won’t belabor the point and subject you to a two-hour long video essay breaking down in excruciating and tedious detail all of the problems with The Phantom Menace. Honestly, the movie’s shortcomings are on the surface and obvious for all to see, and I basically agree with the criticisms we’ve heard over the last two decades. To this day, I’m baffled by some of the creative choices George Lucas made in the prequels.

But I also don’t care. Even now, I can sit down and watch Episode I and have a good time. The pod race is daft and fun. The lightsaber work throughout is among the best in any Star Wars production. Liam Neeson brings a noble presence to the role of Qui-Gon, a character whose actions don’t always seem that noble. Ray Park took a brilliant character design and imparted into it a wonderful physicality that brought to life one of Star Wars‘ best villains. Everything you need to know about Darth Maul is right there in how he looks and how he moves.

But among my friends and many of my fellow first generation Star Wars fans, The Phantom Menace was a disappointment. I think my reaction was tempered by the fact that I’d never stopped watching Star Wars. Since the original trilogy became available on home video, I’d rent all three from Blockbuster once or twice a year, and in between marathons there were countless comics and novels and games to discover as well. Upon repeated viewings, it became clear to me that the original movies are not without their flaws. The lightsaber fight in the first is not good at all; it’s cringeworthy every time Luke and Leia kiss, and, boy, Harrison Ford doesn’t seem like he was trying too hard with what little he was given to work with in Return of the Jedi.

And that’s not counting the Expanded Universe. I love so many of those original adventures that filled the gaps between movies, but plenty of those stories weren’t my cup of tea, to say the least. As far as I was concerned The Phantom Menace was a damn masterpiece compared to Splinter of the Mind’s Eye or Shadows of the Empire.

I make no bones about it: I grade Star Wars on a curve. In spite of Episode I’s flaws and because of its ships and costumes and music and alien worlds, it still feels like Star Wars to me, and that counts for a lot, indeed, it probably counts the most. Not everyone judges movies the same way. That’s cool.

As a Star Wars fan who is more on the fanatic side of the spectrum, I’ve engaged with the movies and fandom in ways different than others whose appreciation is more casual. I watched the backlash to the prequels turn to anger at people who were just trying to make a kid’s adventure movie. Anger at people who most certainly did not deserve it.

I’ve become frustrated with friends when discussing The Phantom Menace. Their complaints are nothing I haven’t seen, heard and read a hundred times already. I don’t think anyone is wrong or unjustified for disliking the movie, but when the reactions are so strident and filled with bile years or decades after the fact, I start to wonder if something else is going on. I think George Lucas’ cardinal sin may be that he failed to make a generation of jaded 30 years olds feel like they were 8 again.

I have also chatted about The Phantom Menace with younger fans who grew up with the prequels the way I grew up with the original trilogy, and their reaction is often quite different because they sometimes feel like they need to temper their enthusiasm with embarrassment because older fans hate the prequels. Now I see the cycle of conflict repeating between fans of this new era of Star Wars and followers of the older ones. And this all just makes me sad. No one should be embarrassed for liking something.

One of my great pleasures over the years has been watching new people discover Star Wars for themselves. Each generation has their own era:the Original Trilogy, the Expanded Universe, Prequels, the Clone Wars-Rebels-Ahsoka cycle, the Sequels, Rogue One/Andor, the High Republic, and on and on. I love that what Star Wars means to me is different from someone else. My nephews could rattle off the names of every clone who fought in the Clone Wars; I draw a blank after Rex and Cody.

Seeing that kind of enthusiasm for different parts of Star Wars lore makes me want to see what I’m missing. I don’t connect with it all by any stretch of the imagination, but because of my nephews, I gave Dave Filoni’s Clone Wars show a second chance, and I’m glad I did. Star Wars is better with Captain Rex, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Doctor Aphra, Luthan Rael, Rose Tico, Ezra Bridger, Satele Shan and Geode in it. And, yes, Star Wars is better with Jar Jar Binks in it.

It’s not my position that The Phantom Menace is “good, actually” or that it’s above criticism. It is, at best, a shaggy dog of a film, but isn’t every Star Wars movie? What I’m saying is this: don’t turn that dislike into resentment. There are bad actors out there all too willing to harvest that resentment to feed the algorithm and force their tastes on everyone else. Just because you loved Star Wars as a kid, doesn’t mean you have to love it years later. It’s okay to move on and let Star Wars become something different for new audiences. Just don’t be a dick about it. No one likes hipsters who tell people they’re wrong for liking the things they like.

In the end, I think the closest that Star Wars can actually come to making you feel like an eight year old again is to see it through someone else’s eyes. Let their discovery of it remind you of your own, even if it’s not the same as yours.

 

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Good Riddance to the Yellow Filter

Wednesday’s SWTOR Livestream previewed the new additions coming to the game with Game Update 7.5, Desperate Defiance, but I want to focus on just one: the visual change to Hutta’s environment. One of my goals with this project is to examine the symbols in SWTOR, but not just their literal meaning, but also their connections to the worlds inside and outside of the game. The changes to Hutta does not involve fake space letters, but the meaning does involve something symbolic that I think is worth exploring: the “Yellow Filter”.

Color is an extremely powerful tool in visual storytelling. It can be used not only to differentiate locations, but also suggest a mood and meaning to places and the people in it. Within Star Wars lore, The Empire Strikes Back best demonstrates the use of color as a means to enhance the story. Hoth is “cool” white and blue; Dagobah is covered in “lush” greens and earth tones; and Bespin is primarily lit in reds that swing from “passionate” to “hellish.”

SWTOR is often staged in a similar way, but over the years it has also been influenced by other cinematic techniques popular at the time. Hutta is a case in point. The Hutta players have experienced since launch is bathed a bright yellow color grade. But why? Yellow can mean different things in different contexts, but I think we can agree Hutta is yellow to suggest the world’s corruption and pollution.

If we take a step back and look at how yellow grading is used in other media, we can see that SWTOR was likely inspired by movies and TV shows like Traffic and Breaking Bad which applied a yellow color grade to scenes set in Mexico. In those cases, this effect serves to make the action set there among the drug cartels feel not only more arid and hotter than scenes set in the United States, but corrupt and rotten as well.

So, of course, I can see how the SWTOR of 2011 might have been inspired to use a similar visual shorthand for Hutta. But in the years since, the meaning of the yellow filter changed, and in many case it has become known as the “Mexican Filter.” Even if we leave aside the fact that casting locations in a yellow color key does not accurately represent their actual appearance, the filter has become used to imply that a location was not only hot and arid, but foreign, poor, different. And it did not go without notice that people who lived in the locations that get the yellow filter treatment from not only Mexico but also the Middle East and Asia almost always have brown skin.

I am not saying that Yellow Hutta is racist and that the devs who made it are racists or anyone who prefers the original version is racist, but I do think that SWTOR is an evolving thing, and new players are experiencing aspects of its game for the first time well over a decade after it launched. I am glad that the team at Broadsword is willing to make changes and updates to the game, even after all this time. I believe that Hutta’s yellow filter has not aged well. It is at the very least clichéd and at the very worst reminds players of a filmmaking trope that has become lazy and often racist itself.

The updated Hutta of 7.5 shifts the color cast towards the earth toned end of spectrum. Certainly there is still plenty of yellow, but a bit more reds and browns instead of orange as well. In addition the cloud cover is now at ground level and the entire environment feels murky and clammy. I can see how many people might prefer the first iteration of the world. Certainly the strong primary color cast of the original Hutta is very dramatic and immediately marks it as an alien world, but, to me, the new Hutta feels sticky and I can practically smell the swamps and polluted air. And when we do see different colors, whether they are the nameplates of enemies or the neon sign of the cantina or an oil slicked rainbow, they pop a bit more.

I think the muted color tones and smog of the new Hutta does a better job of implying that the current environmental catastrophe is something that has been done to the planet by its Hutt overlords and not simply how it has been all along. To me that is more interesting symbolically than a hackneyed yellow filter that these days just says “hot and poor.”

 

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A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That

This week, while we await news of SWTOR’s next major update, I thought I’d take a beat to catch up on a few topics in the game that I’ve missed in the last few months.

Lighting in a Bottle

Let’s start with a change rolled out officially as part of Game update 7.4 that adjusted the way cinematic interactions are lit, “using environment lighting for more accurate shadows, detailed self shadowing on characters, and more custom lighting control in cinematics.” This new approach to lighting had already been introduced without fanfare in the stories from recent updates, but it was retroactively applied to the origin class stories and expansion content where it had not been used.

I’ve been playing through some Origin Stories and Fallen Empire chapters lately, and for the most part the change is very positive. Generally the lighting feels more natural since scenes are lit using ambient sources and not direct overhead lighting in each scene. Occasionally some shots seem a bit on the dark side when our character’s back is to the main light source, but overall, even run of the mill cutscenes feel more visually alive. The difference is especially noticeable in Knights of the Fallen Empire and Knights of the Eternal Throne. Several of the characters in those expansions have custom models, which did not play well with the spotlighting used in the dialogue scenes. During my playthrough, I’ve noticed that Lana, Vaylin and Valkorian look much better without harsh highlights on their faces.

This change can be subtle, and you might not even notice it without a side-by-side comparison, but it’s a positive one that improves the overall cinematic quality of all the game’s stories.

No Free Conquest Lunch

An unannounced change in 7.4.1 was the large reduction in the number of Conquest points awarded from the daily Reputation objective. A single level 50+ character could with a single click-a-day of a reputation trophy easily complete not just their personal Conquest goals, but very nearly even a guild’s small yield invasion target, all without ever stepping outside their stronghold.

Last year when discussing gameplay loops, the World of Warcraft Youtuber SoulSoBreezy remarked that MMOs need to provide players with two things when they log on: “Things to Do” and “Things to Work Towards”.  While there is overlap between the two, especially in SWTOR, I would say that Conquest, Daily Areas and Heroics are essentially “Things to Do”. If you complete Conquest on one character, you can switch to another. If your guild reaches their invasion goal, well, it will all reset next Tuesday.

“Things to Work Towards”, however, tend to have conclusions or at least breakpoints. Players can work towards completing Class or expansion stories, gearing, filling reputation bars, clearing Operations, ranking up in PVP, unlocking Achievements or collecting various rare cosmetic rewards.

Players tend to “Work Towards Things” at their own pace, or the pace of the groups with whom they play, buy “Things to Do” are meant to fill the gaps and time so that a player feels like their time isn’t wasted if they aren’t engaged with their favorite form of gameplay. Conquest, for example, rewards currencies that can help players advance towards their other goals.

When Galactic Seasons were first announced, my fear was that it was going to be just another “Thing to Do”. To my surprise, I’ve really enjoyed the system. I don’t disagree that Galactic Seasons share DNA with Battle Passes with a healthy dose of FOMO, but it’s also something that gives me different options when I play, and often helps guide group activities for my guild which remains the best part of my SWTOR experience. On reset day during the Seasons, I check out what rewards I hope to earn that week, and it’s satisfying when I do.

Until the current season, SWTOR’s Galactic Season also came with a Reputation track associated with each season’s theme. There was criticism that it was just a progression track on top of a progression track, and that Reputations that go away after the season ends are kind of pointless. But I didn’t mind because I knew I could complete the daily Reputation objective and not have to worry about Conquest at all while a Galactic Season was active. It’s not even a close call for me: I’d rather spend ten minutes mediating on Voss or exploring someone’s stronghold as part of Galactic Season objectives than running heroics or daily areas for Conquest points. And as someone whose every other reputation track is maxed out, this was a nice luxury during the Season.

However, by logging onto one character on each server and clicking a reputation token once a day, I was also able to complete the bulk of the previous Galactic Season reward tracks with quite literally minimal effort. It also made me want to delay completing the Reputation track as long as possible so that I could continue to take advantage of the daily reward. On my home server, I did the math and worked out how to complete the Reputation track during the very final days of the season. Shintar amusingly called this “degenerate gameplay” and speaking as someone who took full advantage, I won’t fault Broadsword for the change. Part of the goal of the Galactic Season is to reward players for engaging in different types of activities around the game, and popping on only long enough to click a Rep token is probably not what they had in mind.

Ever since coming out of lockdown, I’ve become less interested in SWTOR’s “Things to Do”. I still complete Conquest on multiple characters, but my goal is to expend as little effort as possible in the process, but I still feel like there are plenty of “Things to Work Towards.” Nevertheless, for other people and guilds, Conquest is a bigger deal, and the Reputation change negatively impacted a lot of players. To compensate, Broadsword came around and essentially doubled the rewards for completing Heroic missions, and players without a lot of free time can still put up a fair number of Conquest points in a short gameplay window. I think this is a fair compromise. Nevertheless I would also like to see the Conquest reward for completing a Galactic Season objective be a little more generous, and the objective for completing multiple Season objectives be reduced from four to three so that it can be achieved twice each week.

A Night on the Town

In addition to the current Galactic Season, Game Update 7.4.1 also came with a dash of story content for players. Ever since unfinished “Date Night” souvenirs found their way into the decorations list last year, players have known something was cooking on the romance front. All credit should be given to Broadsword for waiting for Valentine’s Day to roll out this addition.

The Date Nights are romantic encounters with Lana Beniko, Theron Shan, Arcann and Koth Vortena available to players in relationships with those characters. These four companions were logically chosen because they are the only four which can be romanced by every character regardless of their Origin Story or gender. And based on my experience on social media, Lana and Theron are by far SWTOR’s most popular romances making them natural choices for the initial batch.

As of this writing, I’ve only played Theron’s and Arcann’s Date Nights. My flings with poor Lana never make it past the return of my character’s original romances. As for Koth, while I honestly do like him; I can’t say I like like him, but they’ll get their shots sooner rather than later.

These interludes are short and sweet. Theron’s datapad is the perfect metaphor for everything that is charming and infuriating about the guy, and the conversation it sparks feels true to both his character and mine. As for Arcann, I don’t think we’ve ever seen him this relaxed at any point in the story. It’s a revelation to see in a character mainly known for his self-pity and brooding. Good for him!

There are achievements related to completing the Date Nights for each character multiple times culminating with a decoration related to each encounter. Arcann’s souvenir is a pair of wooden training sabers, mounted with a romantic Aurebesh inscription flanked by crests from Zakuul. This recreation was not complicated to make, but it was my most requested translation in a very long time and I’m always happy to oblige!

But, yes, I did describe these scenes with the words “dash” and “short” for a reason. These are conversations akin to the dialogues scenes characters have with their companions between each planet of their class’s origin stories.

When it comes to story, SWTOR players are like Kylo Ren demanding MORE, and I’m no different. I can’t deny that these feel very short. When the Date Nights were announced, my hope was they’d be something like the Class specific interludes on Rishi during Shadows of Revan. Those weren’t much longer, but still felt more satisfying. On the one hand, I’m not too upset. Lana, Theron, Arcann and even Koth have had lots of time in the spotlight in the last several expansions, but the same can’t be said for many of the original romantic companions. I don’t imagine Mako, Felix, Risha and Andronicus stans will be satisfied by a cut scene that takes less time to play than to read this post.

I don’t know what my conclusion is. The Date Nights I’ve played had nice character moments and are absolutely sweet. Would I have preferred a single ten minute mini chapter featuring one of those companions to four two and a half minute scenes with each of them? Maybe.

Going forward, we’ll be getting one or two more Date Nights with each Galactic Season. I am eagerly anticipating the return of some of my favorite companions, and that maybe, just maybe, their dates have a little more meat on their bones.

 

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This Droid Is Your Friend

This week, let’s take a step back and revisit an older recreation of mine and, in the spirit of last week’s post, take a closer look at the context of its inspiration from the real world. The decoration in question is the Propaganda: Fight for the Meatbags poster that players originally collected as a log-in reward during Knights of the Fallen Empire, but it can now be purchased from the Galactic Seasons tokens vendor. I’ve covered many of SWTOR‘s propaganda posters over the years, but I want to dive a little deeper this time.

Recently, quite by accident, I encountered what was likely the direct inspiration for at least the text of the HK -55 decoration: a series of World War II posters. The reason they did not come up in my initial research was because these posters were not meant strictly as propaganda, but as informational signs designed to help American troops entering the war recognize their fellow Allied forces. There are variants of the poster for Australian, Canadian, Chinese, Dutch, English and Ethiopian soldiers and sailors but the most well known version depicts a Russian soldier. If you click the image below, you’ll find it alongside an additional poster that I created in a fit of whimsey, which characters in the Star Wars galaxy could have discovered on a trip to Copero.

SWTOR’s poster sports a very different graphical design, but the text clearly is a playful riff on the message of the original. Given the intended use of the wartime poster, it’s amusing to think that anyone would mistake HK-55 with his bold yellow paint job and unambiguous in-combat declarations for anything or anyone else. That said, when it comes the various HK model droids, we can never really be sure whose side they are on until they pull the trigger.

The poster’s graphic design draws inspiration from classic propaganda posters of not only World War II, but also from those of the post-war Soviet Union and China during the time of the Cultural Revolution, and I’d like to highlight a few here.

The most distinctive propaganda posters typically feature illustrations of heroic soldiers or workers or political leaders. Over the decades, the artists and designers of these posters demonstrated great skill at working within the limitations of these cheaply printed and mass produced posters, and they created images famous for their bold sense of design with flattened, halftone color palettes. In particular, the element of the radiating lines of a sunburst behind the protagonist has become almost a clichéd aspect of these propaganda posters, and clearly SWTOR’s HK graphic shares in that general aesthetic.

Finally, I’ll just finish on a quick note that a second HK-55 poster “Propaganda: Victory Protocols Activated” has long been included in the game’s data files, and you can even look it up in the Decorations interface, but it was never made available to players. This one has a design closer to the Allied posters of the Second World War, and I hope that one day it might find its way into players’ Strongholds.

 

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Action Figures Each Sold Separately

When considering topics for this blog, the translation of Aurebesh is often the easiest part of the process. Beyond the literal meaning of the words we see in the game, I also aim to consider their context and meaning within Star Wars: The Old Republic or within Star Wars lore as a whole. This week’s project’s context is different than any I’ve discussed before, and while the translation was indeed straightforward, my recreation led me to a different corner of Star Wars history.

The first time I saw this decoration in a friend’s Stronghold there was something vaguely familiar about it, but I couldn’t quite place it. Only when I looked it up in the Cartel Market and saw its name did I recognize what inspired this addition to SWTOR. The decoration, the Vehicle Maintenance Energizer, shares its name with a toy created by Kenner in 1982 as a part of its Star Wars action figure line. The toy was meant to function as a tool shelf and refueling station for the lines’ various vehicles and spaceships from Luke’s Landspeeder to his X-Wing Fighter.

Like many, many members of that first generation of Star Wars fans, I grew up with Kenner’s Star Wars figures, and discovering that this decoration pays loving tribute to the vintage toy made the kid in me very happy.

SWTOR’s version of the Energizer was designed by Tanner Hartman, and he has shared views of the decoration and higher tech update of the Energizer that clearly shows fidelity to Kenner’s original. The decoration is interactive and when clicked opens up in the same manner as the toy. Among the decoration’s many details are the tools left on the table and in the drawers that are based on the actual accessories included with the set. Each of the decoration’s tools are stamped with the Aurebesh letters “CEC”. This is a clear indication that the Energizer is a product of the venerable Corellian Engineering Corporation, maker of many fine starships including Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and the Smuggler’s very own XS Freighter.

This decoration has been on my to-do list for a long while, but I wasn’t sure how to cover it in a way that does justice to its source material. Typically I try to present Aurebesh elements from SWTOR in a context where modern players understand it as their characters would. But in this case, I realized the point of view this item really needs is that of a kid wandering the aisles of a Sears or Toys R Us store in 1982.

I should also mention the very off-brand SWTOR logo that I placed on the box. Kenner’s Star Wars toys typically featured their own versions of the Star Wars movie logos in their packaging, and I wanted to make something along those lines. My faux design of the logo is bad, and close to unreadable, but I don’t think it’s so far off from what Kenner might have actually produced back then.

I hope you’ll forgive this indulgence in a different kind of recreation. That said, if you came for some Aurebesh, I won’t leave you hanging! When activated the decoration opens up and activates monitors one of which has Aurebesh text. The translation reveals that they are diagnostic displays that are entirely appropriate for the Energizer’s intended purpose. While including a dash of inspiration from Back to the Future, the technical readout does a very nice job of striking a balance between seeming both realistic but not quite mundane, and fantastic but not quite ridiculous. When it comes to technobabble, this is a remarkably difficult line to toe. The vehicle seen in the top display is the Jan-Tan Dualray speeder, which Tanner Hartman also helped create for SWTOR; in addition, part of that speeder’s engine can be seen on the Energizer’s table, ready for repairs!

Cop-Eras Tour

Finally, I do want to briefly touch on the SWTOR team’s latest livestream, which introduced the content of the next game update, 7.4.1. Despite being a .1 patch meant to serve as a bridge between major updates, I was impressed with what Broadsword had to share.

Since our first visit during the Traitor Among the Chiss flashpoint, I’ve hoped we’d find a reason to return to Copero, a world overflowing with picturesque beaches and snowcapped mountains. There is no way I would’ve predicted that it would be the location of the Stronghold Keith Kanneg teased late last year. That the next Galactic Season is structured around unlocking a stronghold that based on the preview seems so very breathtaking, exceeded my wildest expectations.

The other significant addition coming next month are the Date Night missions. For many players, romances are as an important part of the roleplaying experience as galaxy shaking conflicts with epic enemies. Based on my social media feed alone, I sometimes wonder if Baldur’s Gate 3 might be less a Dungeons and Dragons game than a dating simulator, and that is true of SWTOR as well. And yet there hasn’t been a ton of action for our characters in the area of romantic entanglements during Legacy of the Sith.

My guess is that since there are so many potential romances available to players, it must be a challenge for the developers to find spaces to fit those characters and interactions within the main story. As a result, there have been a few flirts here and there, but probably not as much smooching as many players would like. The Date Night stories should help to address that. Ashley Ruhl and Caitlin Sullivan Kelly fairly addressed why the Fallen Empire romance companions are the logical choices with which to start. Simply by the numbers alone, I am certain that Lana and Theron are SWTOR player’s two most popular romances.

There are many, many other companions for our characters to fall in love with, and the team indicated that each will have their moment to shine. That said, it will take a while to get to them all. As with all things SWTOR, patience is a virtue.

I am not expecting the “date nights” to be full blown chapters with action and adventure and multiple encounters, but I do hope there is some depth to our interactions that will make them satisfying to revisit again and again. During the Fallen Empire era, numerous major companions were shoe-horned back into the game in very brief recruitment missions, and I hope that when their turns come up Risha and Mako and Vector and Felix and the rest get the attention they missed last time around.

Finally the team closed out with a preview of the next major update, 7.5, which will see a return to Hutta as part of the main story, the conclusion of Lane Vizla’s quest to rebuild a Basilisk droid, as well as the debut of a new springtime event. Given that we are on the cusp of Spring already, it suggests to me that SWTOR’s next major update will be sooner rather than later.

After last year’s drama, it’s nice to hope that there will be lots to do and explore in SWTOR in the months ahead.

 

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Can’t You Hear the Thunder?

This week, as I await the next game update, I thought I’d check in on my Hardcore challenge one last time. First and foremost, I want to thank everyone who entered my Shae Vizla raffle. Because the raffle required an extra step of including a screenshot of their player’s story progress, most of the entries I received came to me via email, but it also allowed folks to share with me their experiences on SWTOR‘s new Asia-Pacific server. Hearing people’s stories about how much fun they had starting fresh on Shae Vizla was very cool to see, and I was especially impressed to learn how many people attempted, failed and triumphed at my hardcore challenge. It’s gratifying to know that I’m not the only one who gave it a go! Everyone who entered received a prize, and if you haven’t heard from me check your email or the in-game mail of the character who entered. Otherwise, leave me a comment below and I’ll track you down!

As Shae Vizla entered its third month, we received an answer from Broadsword to the hotly debated question about whether server transfers would be allowed to the new server, with the confirmation that they will be coming sooner rather than later. I think this is very good news for players in the region who want to make the server their home. Yes, it will affect the economy, but I don’t think that is sufficient reason to not allow transfers. I know I’m not alone in being very attached to the characters I’ve played the most over the years, and allowing players access to their main characters is an important part of making sure Shae Vizla has a chance to succeed.

I’m also glad to see that free transfers will be included for subscribers as well. If you were transferred off an APAC server during the old server mergers, it’s only fair that you shouldn’t have to pay to get back now that one exists again. Broadsword has indicated that they will limit the number of credits that can be transferred, and I concede that is a reasonable step to control the economic impact transfers will have on the local economy.

The question of what the future holds for Shae Vizla is a fair one to ask. My general impression is that older MMOs tend to close down servers, not open new ones, and I imagine Broadsword is closely watching Shae Vizla’s progress. I very much hope it finds a large enough population to sustain a reasonable amount of endgame activity. Xam Xam and Shintar report that now that the excitement of the launch has cooled off, and we find ourselves between Galactic and PVP seasons, things are quieting down on Shae Vizla, and I hope transfers help the server find a stable population of players and an identity of its own.

The move to the Amazon cloud services gives Broadsword the ability to more easily set up servers these days, but I doubt we will be seeing an explosion of new servers. I think it’s possible that we might see some limited time “event” servers akin to what Classic World of Warcraft has done with their Hardcore and Seasonal servers. I’ve watched the WOW Classic community bounce between Classic and Hardcore and new Season of Discovery events, but I don’t know to what degree SWTOR would be able to chase those fads. Could Broadsword try? Sure! I would absolutely give an official hardcore server a go, but I don’t think I’d want to see the SWTOR team devote the kind of energy that goes into something like WOW‘s Season of Discovery if it comes at the expense of content on the live servers.

Overall, I think the addition of Shae Vizla is a good sign for the health and future of the game, and I look forward to seeing what else the game might “serve” up.

 

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We Can’t Rewind: Five Predictions for 2024

My list of predictions of what we can expect to see in Star Wars: The Old Republic for the coming year has become an annual tradition in folly. Despite the fact that I thought for certain there were one or two slam dunks among last year’s prognostications, I ended up missing especially badly. Indeed, if not for the addition at the very end of the year of a hat that also shows our character’s hair, I would’ve put up nothing but goose eggs.

It’s not clear to me if the Life Day Officer’s hat is working as intended, but perhaps it suggests that the good folks at Broadsword are thinking about how to solve the problem. Time will tell.

Clearly my predictions should be taken with a grain or two of salt. If I’m going to be completely honest, if I start getting them right, I suspect this list will be significantly less fun to make, but at this point nothing can stop me now. So on with the show!

What’s Shae Up To?

As part of the last update, we have learned that Mandalore herself, Shae Vizla has gone dark and no one seems to know where she is and where she’s doing. So what is she up to? The answer is obvious: nothing good. It’s never a good sign in SWTOR when one of our companions goes rogue. I have a feeling Shae means to rip some pages from the classic Theron Shan playbook and make our characters’ lives a blizzard of torn paper.

But what exactly is her plan? I think she’s gonna bust Malgus out of jail. Shae and Malgus are former co-workers after all, and she has experience getting into highly secure locations. “The enemy of my enemy is my ally” feels like Mandalorian logic to be sure, and I imagine Shae’s hatred of the Hidden Chain is blinding enough that she might think she can trust Malgus to help her take down Heta Kol. This is probably a mistake.

Ever since he was captured, we’ve all been waiting for Darth Malgus to have his “You should’ve killed me when you had the chance!” moment, and I wonder if it’s coming this year. Perhaps this will be the thing that kick starts the story into high gear and leads to some hotly anticipated revelations about Darth Nul.

It Takes a Very Steady Hand

I like to include one impossible dream among my predictions each year, and this one is likely it. But I hope raiders get some love and attention this year. First off, let me get this out of the way: no, I don’t think Nightmare R4 is in the cards this year, or ever. That it launched as a “Hardmare” was a clear indication to me that no Master Mode iteration was in the works even before Eric Musco came out and said as much.

I don’t consider R4 to be one of SWTOR’s more successful operations; story mode raiders can’t complete it on Story Mode; and its final boss on Veteran Mode is more difficult that most Nightmare bosses. Anyone who raids knows this, and I’m certain Broadsword is well aware of R4’s participation and completion rates.

That doesn’t mean SWTOR should abandon operations content. Raiding is a vital component of any MMO whose importance goes beyond the number of players who actually do it. For one thing, much of the game’s institutional knowledge or “paratext” typically is passed down from raiders who dive into the game’s stats and creates the guides that help other players gear up and play their class even if they never set foot in group content.

Raiding is fun. Raiding is aspirational content for new and veteran players alike. Despite the fact that Dread Fortress is more than a decade old, I was thrilled to see my friends Kats_Tales and Capt_Roman recently defeat Brontes on Nightmare and earn their Wings of the Architect!

With a couple of exceptions, I think SWTOR has done a very good job making operations accessible to all players. As a guildmaster and raid leader, there is nothing I enjoy more than taking players intimidated by the thought of joining a raid and showing them the ropes. Working with friends and teammates to overcome a challenge they thought out of reach is one of the best feelings in the whole of this game.

Raiding is fun. The Dread Master saga told throughout the first two expansions worth of operations is one of SWTOR’s best arcs. Gods from the Machine is an epic capstone to the Iokath story.

Will we see a new full-scale Operation this year? I don’t think so. But it’s been more than five years since we journeyed into the Hive of the Mountain Queen, and I feel like we are overdue for a new lair boss. An addition of that scope does not feel impossible or too much to ask.

Could we uncover a rogue Basilisk droid on Ruhnuc or awaken a giant Firaxan shark on Manaan or revisit the final fight with Tenebrae, Vitiate and Valkorian from Echoes of Oblivion in a raid group? Who knows? But I do think it is content worth advocating for.

A Room With A View

Last month Keith Kanneg marked SWTOR’s twelfth anniversary with an overview of how far the game has come during what must have been a tumultuous year for the developer team. I think he has every right to be proud of the team’s additions to the game last year, but Keith also knows the players well and was sure to give us a tease of what to expect in 2024, including a return to a place with “quite a view.”

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that that Papa Keith is referring to a long rumored Stronghold that certainly would come with a “penthouse view”, but since this is an exhibition not a competition, I am free to suggest a different option, and instead I’ll guess that we will be returning to Oricon.

Oricon has been a much requested location for a Stronghold, one for which Sith characters would have a strong affinity. As players who have journeyed into the Dread Palace know, the jagged spires atop Oricon’s fiery, volcanic landscape have a heck of a view, and nothing ties a room together like liquid hot magma. I can imagine all sorts of potentially cool areas that could be included in an Oricon Stronghold: a throne room, a smelting forge and even portals in space and time to hidden chambers. And, hey, if we are returning to Oricon, maybe we’ll find out what Dread Master Calphayus has been up to all these years.

Who Rang? Huyang!

One of the things that has allowed SWTOR’s story to flourish despite being part of the sprawling shared continuity is that it more or less exists in its own corner of the Star Wars universe which lets the game’s storytellers play in their own sandbox without having to worry about what is going on in other media. To be sure, SWTOR has always embraced its ties to Star Wars history from Knights of the Old Republic and the Tales of the Jedi comics, but in recent years the game has been more willing to bring in elements from modern Star Wars lore, especially in the realm of cosmetics.

When it comes to characters and storylines, however, there are few direct connections bridging the thousands of years that separate SWTOR from mainline Star Wars lore. During Jedi Under Siege, players who met the slumbering ancient Jedi Master Ood Bnar, who first appeared in the Dark Empire comics, know that SWTOR is willing to play with concepts that exist across the ages. There is one newly prominent character in Star Wars media who could, and perhaps even should, make an appearance in SWTOR.

I refer, of course, to the droid archivist Huyang who first appeared in The Clone Wars cartoon, but last year had a significant role in the Ahsoka live action series. For countless millennia, Huyang guided Jedi in the construction of their lightsabers. Even during the time of SWTOR, he would be considered unfathomably ancient, and there is no reason he could not be around for our characters to encounter.

Before you say it, yes, it would absolutely be fan service. But I’m on the record that not all fan service is bad. I also understand that SWTOR’s story has other things on its mind right now, but Huyang already shares similarities with one of SWTOR’s existing protocol droid models, and perhaps with a few tweaks and customizations we might discover Huyang in a workshop on Tython or Ilum helping a class of eager Padawans build their first lightsabers.

And it would be even cooler if his appearance was tied to an unexpected bit of exploration or a side-quest for the players to discover.

Darth Nul is a Porg

At this point, I can only hope that you admire my commitment to the bit. If I have to keep it going, I’m gonna go big. Big and stupid.

We haven’t seen Darth Nul’s face. We don’t know she’s not a Porg. No one can tell me that it is impossible. Heck, I’m even willing to accept that Darth Nul could be a stack of Porgs in a trench coat. And if you think about it, it all makes sense that she would be a murder of Porgs. Who better to see the Force potential of every living being in the galaxy than the Porgs? They were drawn to the ancient temple on Ahch-To. Porgs made a bee-line for Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber. They followed Rey when she left the planet. IT’S ONLY LOGICAL.

Here’s the thing: my very first Dumb Top Five List was the template for my annual predictions, and on that list was a request for Loth Cats. As everyone knows we got an adorable and mewing Loth Cat as one of the ultimate rewards of the latest Galactic Season. Could Porgs be next? Don’t count them out! Please, Broadsword, don’t count them out. I’m running out of Porg jokes!

What do you think? Let me know what you hope to see in SWTOR in the months ahead! In the meantime, I hope everyone’s new year is off to a good start, and that 2024 is a fun and rewarding year for SWTOR and all of you who took a moment to drop by this silly blog. Cheers!

 

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Filed under Dumb Top Five, General SWTOR, Legacy of the Sith

Fortune and Glory, Kid

This week, to end the year in style, let’s take a look at a pair of unexpected additions to SWTOR from Game Update 7.4, Chains in the Dark: two propaganda posters featuring none other than Heta Kol.

These new posters were a surprise to be sure for two reasons. First, these graphics, as well as some other Republic and Imperial fleet posters were unannounced additions, but it’s also odd that Heta Kol would be promoting herself on the Fleet hubs while the forces of her Hidden Chain invades the worlds of the Empire and the Republic.

Within the context of the game world, two explanations spring to mind. Perhaps the Hidden Chain sliced into the Fleets’ advertising systems to illicitly include their own propaganda as a form of digital graffiti. Another possibility is that the Republic and Sith Empire are so hard up for ad revenue these days that they’ll take credits from anyone. Frankly, that second explanation feels all too realistic and plausible.

But let’s take a close look at the posters themselves. The text of both uses the Mandalorian alphabet which was created for Attack of the Clones but continues to be used and refined in live action Star Wars including The Mandalorian. As with the Mandalorian language banners introduced in the Spirits of Vengeance flashpoint, these posters translate not into English but into the Mando’a dialect, which was first introduced in the Republic Commando novels but has also been developed in other media.

Because the text does not directly translate into English, the challenge in translation was two fold, and I decided to create both Mando’a and English language translations of the posters. Typically, my recreations feature letter-for-letter transcriptions whether the source is Aurebesh or another alien typeface, but in these cases the English language translations do not exactly align with the Mandalorian originals. Fortunately, the message of these posters is direct enough that the changes I made don’t feel like they have dramatically upset the posters’ original designs.

As for the translation itself, Mando’a is not a fully developed “conlang” or Constructed Language like Dothraki, Elvish or Klingon, and most of the usage we see is chiefly concerned with the kind of things Mandalorian are typically going on about anyway. Since the intent of the posters is to be propaganda that delivers a short, direct message, I don’t think I needed to look for nuance in my translations, despite the temptation.

The design of these images are similar to wartime propaganda posters that you might have seen in real life or scattered across SWTOR’s worlds and Strongholds. Both posters feature a powerful portrait of Heta Kol against a background that propels the viewer’s gaze upward to the sky, along either beams of light or launching spaceships.

The background of the second image features an emblem that is new to players with this update. This seems to be the symbol of the Hidden Chain, and it is also featured prominently on the swanky new red and bronze armor worn by Mandalorians of the Hidden Chain. I think the iconography of this symbol is worth exploring.

Let’s start in the center, that hexagonal shape has its origins in the breast plate of Boba Fett’s armor and has over the years come to be symbolic of the entire Mandalorian aesthetic from their armor and spaceships to their art and architecture, particularly as seen in The Clone Wars and Rebels shows. On either side of the hexagon, two shapes that appear to be links of a chain seem to pull apart the hexagon which is broken into two pieces. The symbolism is clear: the goal of Heta Kol’s Hidden Chain is to tear apart the traditional structure of Mandalorian culture.

I don’t think Heta just wants to be the next Mandalore. She truly wants a revolution that will remake Mandalorian culture into something else, for better or worse. This is why Shae Vizla has reacted so strongly and stridently to the Hidden Chain’s challenge. Heta isn’t being subtle in her intent as we saw when she destroyed the Clan Cadera banner on Ruhnuc for all Mandalorians to see. This perspective reinforces the central theme of SWTOR’s story over the last two expansions. Darth Malgus wants to break free of the endless cycle of conflict between the Jedi and the Sith, which has left him chained physically, mentally and metaphorically. Similar questions are on the mind of Sa’har Kateen and Shae Vizla as they try to make sense of their places in a new and changing galaxy that is still emerging from the ashes of the war with the Eternal Empire.

To me, this is all very cool. These graphics echo the themes of the story, and the story is connected to their design. Sure, they are neat posters, but they also enhance the player’s experience of the story within the game world. You don’t need to know the literal meaning of Heta’s propaganda to understand its intent, and that’s a mark of very good design.

My Hardcore Journey – Act Three

Finally, let me share the conclusion of my Hardcore Journey with the completion, just barely, of Act Three of the Jedi Knight story.

My biggest surprise about this challenge is that it turned out to be harder than I expected. My choice of Shadow for Combat Style turned out to be most fortunate; the ability to exit combat with Force Cloak saved me from certain death on multiple occasions. As I neared the conclusion of the Jedi Knight story, I barreled ahead at full speed, and took on the Emperor for the first time in years, with only a vague memory of the encounter’s mechanics. T7 was defeated quickly, and I would’ve followed soon after had I not hit Force Cloak to reset the encounter. A quick Google search reminded me what to do, but even so I only survived by the skin of my teeth.

Looking back at the experience, my main piece of advice is to take it slow. While within the level range of a planet and wearing only quest rewards for gear, a group of two or three enemies could be a lot more dangerous than I might expect, and my companions weren’t always as helpful as I would’ve liked them to be. “Kira! What are you doing?!”

One thing I would change is to fuss less with heroics, and do more side quests. I rate the experience gains from planetary side quests higher than the gear upgrades from heroics. Entering nearly every new planet while three levels lower than the mobs I encountered was usually fine, but led to some spicy combats that would’ve been trivial with a couple more levels under my belt.

As for crafting, I stuck with Artifice and it did eventually result in a steady supply of purple quality color crystals, but I found it more trouble and expensive than it was worth to craft level appropriate lightsabers or off-hands, and I suspect this would have been the case for any other crew skill I might have selected. That said, next time I go, I think I’ll give Biochem a try. My Jedi Knight never wanted for medpacks, but I wonder if a constant supply of stims could have helped out more.

I also want to remind readers that as of this post, there is still more than three weeks to enter my Act Three raffle. All you need to do to enter is to show me that you’ve completed Act Three of any class story on the brand new Shae Vizla server. I’ve received many entries already and it’s been neat to hear about folks’ journeys on SWTOR’s new home down under. It’s also been gratifying to hear that many of you have taken up my Hardcore Challenge as well. This raffle features the biggest prize pool I’ve ever offered, and there is still plenty of time to enter!

Finally, let me close out 2023 with thanks to everyone who has visited my little corner of the Internet this year. I strive to have a slightly different perspective on Star Wars: The Old Republic, and I’m looking forward to new adventures in the year to come, and I hope to see you there as well!

 

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Filed under Legacy of the Sith, Mandalorian to English

Second Best View

SWTOR‘s next update “Chains in the Dark” is set to launch tomorrow, but before then, I’d like to take a moment to share my submissions to the Best View in SWTOR contest, whose winners were announced last week.

I awaited the announcement of the winners with keen interest this year, because one of my submissions was among the contest’s finalists. While watching the last livestream I was in my guild’s Discord with friends, and they might tell you that I was just a little excited to see my screenshot from Onderon in the video showing off the finalists. I tried to play it cool afterwards so as not to jinx it, but I was pretty giddy in that moment. I like to think that I have had some very, very small effects on SWTOR over the years, but to be completely honest, I really hoped to win so that I could point at a decoration in my stronghold and say “I made that!”

“It was not to be, Chérie.” I refuse to look for fault in the winners. The winning landscape of Belsavis is especially lovely, and I’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic view of Ilum than what was selected. It comforts me that my screenshot in the tunnels of Onderon is thematically not too different from the winning selection, as are a couple of my other submissions.

I hope this contest comes around again! I’ve often said that I enjoy exploration in MMOs, and this contest is an excellent way to engage in the game’s many environments without thinking about them as nothing more than lines between one quest and the next. Taking in the scenery, looking to the sky and finding pleasure in unexpected vistas is as important in a galaxy far, far away as it is in this whole wide world of ours.

Once again, I’ll spare the commentary, and simply share my submissions to the contest. If your submissions are online, let me know where to find ’em, I’d love to see ’em!

Balmorra

Belsavis

Corellia

Dantooine

Ilum

Nar Shaddaa

Onderon

Oricon

Ruhnuc

Voss

My Hardcore Journey – Act Two

Before I go, let me leave you with a quick update on my Hardcore Challenge attempt on the APAC Shae Vizla server. I should’ve taken my own advice not to get cocky, because not a day after my last post, my Scoundrel perished in the Storymode Flashpoint Taral V. “How is it even possible to die in a Storymode flashpoint?” you might ask incredulously. Well, it’s pretty easy if you dismiss the GSI Support Droid and are two levels below the Flashpoint’s suggested cap. The encounter with Captain Shivanek and Ripper did me in. Stunned by the Captain, I was easy prey for Ripper. The death was frustrating because I know that had I been a more proactive with the healing stations, I would’ve survived. One of the things I’ve really struggled to get used to in this challenge is just how bad Companions are at low influence levels. I died with a curse for Corso on my lips.

With my fourth character, I resolved to learn from my mistakes and minimize risk as much as possible, so Flashpoints are off the menu this go. My current character is a Jedi Knight with the Shadow combat style, and instead of splitting time with multiple Companions, I’m sticking with Kira come hell or high water. I prefer having stealth at my disposal, although I have to be very diligent about completing bonus mission that requires me to defeat enemies in phased areas. The problem of constantly being slightly under leveled for each planet remains. For encounters in the story this is rarely an issue, but I do keep Kira set to heal more than I would normally. Something that did help out last week was the Bounty Broker Event, which daily awards a nice chunk of experience points. By the weekend, I’d collected enough Contracts to try a Kingpin Bounty, which was more than a little spicy. On Alderaan, I took the Claw down (and alive!) even if it took all my cooldowns and a medpack. Having to approach encounters that I’ve gotten used to steamrolling with care and consideration continues to keep the journey fresh.

Since I’m not out-leveling any of the planets I’m visiting, I’ve discovered that companion conversations after completing each stage of the story actually award, as a whole, a decent amount of experience points and has meant I don’t feel as much pressure to go back to do extra heroics before I leave. And, look, I won’t lie, making level after smooching Kira has got to be one of the best ways to level up.

With Act Two complete, I’ve just Voss and Corellia ahead of me. I’m in the home stretch, but I need to resist the temptation to rush. With the next update mere hours away, I don’t want to die foolishly trying to get this challenge done. Wish me luck!

 

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Filed under General SWTOR, Legacy of the Sith

My Hardcore Journey – Act One

SWTOR‘s new APAC server Shae Vizla is just over one week old, and I’d like to share an update with my progress Down Under. Looking back at my previous entry, I realized that even though I had thrown down the gauntlet for a hardcore challenge, I didn’t make it clear that I would attempt it myself. While we wait for news of the next update, I, of course, had to give the challenge a go myself. I mean how hard could it really be?

Not Great, Bob

I won’t lie. I’m on my third character. The first two died at nearly identical levels on Dromund Kaas. In both cases their deaths can be chalked up to greed and sloppiness. My first character was an Operative, and while Stealth is great for slipping past enemies, it’s also great for accidentally aggroing groups I’d skipped. My second character was a Sorcerer who died because I was certain I could easily defeat two elite mobs at once. Had I been just a little more cautious in the first case, and in the next not so frugal with med-packs (a problem I’ve had going back to my potion hoarding days in World of Warcraft), I would have surely survived.

The problem with the hardcore challenge is that dying means going again, and it can take some motivation to start over from scratch. If I’m going to be honest, after the second death in a single day, I considered giving up or worse cheating by reviving and continuing as if nothing had happened. But I’d know the truth, so after sleeping on it, it was back to the character creation screen I went.

For a long time, SWTOR front-loaded many of the key abilities of each class, so that by the time a character had completed their second planet, they had access to much of their class’s tool kit of abilities and tricks. However, these days, skills are doled out at a slower pace. This is a better experience for new players who aren’t overwhelmed with a constant barrage of new abilities at the very start of the game, but as a veteran, I do miss those extra buttons and have needed to remind myself not to play as if I have them from the start.

Third Time’s the Charm (Hopefully)

So I switched factions, and had another go at a stealth character, this time a Scoundrel. I’ve also been much, much more cautious. As I write this, I’ve just completed Act One and perfectly timed hitting level 30 with the death of Skavak. While I am very eagerly awaiting Disappearing Act and Tranquilizer dart, I feel like I pretty much have the tools I need to win any fight. At least any fight in the Smuggler class story.

After my bad luck on Dromund Kaas, I’ve mostly been sticking to story quests. The game is generous in awarding XP Boosts after each planet, but I’ve found that I’m starting to lag behind. I’ve been completing each planet’s story without out-levelling the planet, which is a new experience for me. I do want to stay within each planet’s level range, but seeing enemies whose levels are written in orange reminds me to stay frosty. However, before departing each planet, I have been padding out my xp bar with a few Datacrons and one or two heroics.

By sticking mostly to story, I’ve found that gearing has been the biggest issue. A belt I looted from a mob on Ord Mantell lasted me until level 29, and I only managed to fill my final equipment slot when I remembered that Matrix Shards can be turned into relics.

I honestly cannot remember the last time I made a Matrix Cube, and there was a fun jolt of nostalgia as I plugged the shards into the Assembly Machine on Coruscant. Matrix Cubes are such an afterthought nowadays, that I could not find an up-to-date guide on the cubes since SWTOR replaced the Willpower, Strength, Cunning and Aim stats on all gear with Mastery. Going by the numbers on the old versions of the cubes, I had a good idea I wouldn’t get one with tanking stats, but I honestly wasn’t sure until I’d fired the machine up.

Credits have not been a significant issue, especially once I completed Conquest, and I’m sitting on almost 50,000 right now. I Quick Travel whenever possible and since training is free, I don’t need to spend them on anything else. I’d hoped to keep up with crafting as I leveled, but the cost of chain running Mission skills does add up, and I’ve simply not been keeping my crafting on par with my gear. I dipped into Artifice to make a couple color crystals, but since it costs 8,000 credits to remove a color crystal, and the story awards a main and off hand weapon on each planet, I would’ve quickly gone bankrupt had I burned 16,000 credits upgrading my weapons each planet. So for now, my weapons are without Color Crystals. I find myself missing the modable weapons, especially the long lost A-300 Sonic Needler, that SWTOR used to award players from heroics and at key story points. I’ll take the green weapon upgrades for sure, but they don’t have much character compared to the old quest rewards.

Don’t Get Cocky, Kid

Now that I’m well on my way, I’m having more fun and feeling more confident that I’ll make it to Act Three without perishing. It’s definitely the “Salad Days” on Shae Vizla, and not being able to rely on Legacy Perks and all the credits I’ll ever need still feels refreshing.

“Stay on target”, I keep telling myself. “Don’t get greedy” and “Avoid elevators at all costs!” I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to do the Revan flashpoints. I feel like solo-mode flashpoints with the GSI droid would be too cheesy, but I fear they might be too much of a slog without it. I think it’s all going to come down to my mood next week.

Finally, let me finish up with a reminder that my Act Three Challenge Raffle runs until the middle of January. Show me that you’ve completed Act Three of any class story on Shae Vizla, and you’ll be eligible to win. I’ve received a bunch of entries already, but I am certain that there will be more than enough prizes to go around. Check out last week’s post for details!

 

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Filed under General SWTOR