As the end of the year looms ever larger, I’m still playing catch up with everything I’ve been wanting to discuss here. For now, I’d like to share my first impressions of SWTOR’s newest operation, but do it from a perspective a little different than normal. But let’s start with the basics!
The R-4 Anomaly
This past summer saw the release of a brand new, somewhat delayed new operation: The R-4 Anomaly.
As with all my operations experience in recent years, my progress through R-4 through has been very casual and my focus has been getting to experience it with friends and guildmates. This means I haven’t set foot in Veteran Mode, but that’s fine me. Storymode is still plenty challenging; it feels in many way like the Hard Modes of old. The dps and healing checks are there, but not wholly beyond reach. The mechanics are the real challenge, and do require a coordinated group and communication in voice chat.
In other words, Story Mode R-4 is unlike every other Storymode in the game. Personally, I’m having a great time learning the fights and teaching them to others. However, this does mean that the majority of actual Story Mode players are left out in the cold. A Story Mode nerf seems inevitable, but I wonder where it will leave my more casual “beer league” operations team. From what I’ve seen, Veteran Mode R-4 seems more akin to the “Hard Mares” of Shadow of Revan, something of which I am on the record being no fan.
With the legacy Story Modes now tuned to be the easiest they’ve ever been, R4’s introductory difficulty stands out as an “anomaly” that is harder than most Veteran Mode operations. Personally, I would’ve notched up the labels of each version of the raid from Story Mode to Veteran and Veteran Mode to Master, and released a universal Storymode for folks without gear or experience to freely explore. As someone without any actual MMO design knowledge, I’m certain this would’ve been fine for Story Mode players and casual raiders like myself, but I’m not sure how the Nightmare community would feel about it. I don’t envy Bioware’s job trying to strike a balance in group content for all the varied levels of players in the game, but the inconsistency in difficulty renders the labels they put on the modes confusing at best.
As for the operation’s setting, R-4 is the spookiest and most atmospheric one we’ve had since the Dread Fortress and Dread Palace. The hallways between bosses are dark, dangerous and cramped, and it’s not until the operation’s climatic encounter that the space opens up at all. The boss fights are distinct and unique. So far I like Watchdog best of all: each player has their own responsibilities and each group can deal with the mechanics in different ways, making it a little different to play every time. When my team executes the strategy perfectly, it is incredibly satisfying and has a real effect on the entire flow of the fight.
ARIA’s story from the Dxun operation continues into R4. Despite her narration throughout, I’m not completely clear how she became involved in some rogue Sith’s plan to rebuild the Mass Shadow Generator. I suppose the move from Czerka to the cult of the Unmasked isn’t that big of a leap. The operation’s overall story is not terribly complex. Basically a Sith cult started playing with powers they didn’t fully understand and things went sideways. For an operation that is essentially a haunted house in space, I’m not sure we need much more than that.
I do want to compliment the voice acting included in the op. ARIA continues to be amusing, and Helen Sadler’s performance as the operation’s climatic foe, Lady Dominque is strong as well. And all due credit should go to SWTOR stalwart, Darin De Paul, who definitely gave his all to Lord Kanoth, quite possibly SWTOR’s most unsettling and creepy operations foe.
The rewards from our Story Mode runs have been a bit of a mixed bag. My team had already collected at least a few pieces of 330 gear from Nefra before R4 even launched, and we very quickly unlocked the 330 modifications from Hyde and Zeek, so the actual token drops haven’t been useful for gearing. I’ve completed two cosmetic armor sets and still have dozens of tokens with nothing to spend them on. However, random mobs do drop some neat decorations, but given that the operation is relatively light on trash, I do wish the drop rate were a bit more generous. I should also say that the Wings of Nihrot that can be looted in Veteran Mode are wicked cool, and I definitely have at least one unhinged Sith who’d look good wearing them.
The only glaring oversight I can see from the operations rewards are the lack of a Watchpuppy mini-pet or even a Watchdoggo companion.
Dark Ladies of the Sith
The encounter with Lady Dominique is a fitting capstone to the raid. She’s a unique foe in an epic setting, both with deep ties to Star Wars lore. There is a lot going on, a lot for each player to figure out and get used to, and I’m enjoying the journey of learning this fight. At least when it has been working anyway.
The Mass Shadow Generator is likely familiar to fans of Knights of the Old Republic, but I want to spend some time exploring Lady Dominique’s design instead. The thing that struck me when I first saw her, was her similarity to the character who is actually the second dark sider in Star Wars lore to be identified as a Lord of the Sith: the Dark Lady Lumiya.
Lumiya has a long history, which extends even into the late Expanded Universe and I won’t go into too much detail except to say that she began as a supporting character and antagonist in Marvel Comic’s original Star Wars comics during the 1980’s. She was an agent of the Empire sent to infiltrate the Rebel Alliance following the events of The Empire Strikes Back. She befriended and possibly seduced Luke Skywalker until he thought he’d accidentally killed her in battle. But she survived and was rebuilt thanks to Darth Vader’s intervention, and reemerged after Return of the Jedi as Vader’s heir intent on defeating Luke and the Rebel Alliance. The aspect of Lumiya’s story that always resonated with me is that if Luke is Anakin Skywalker’s son, then Lumiya is in many ways, Darth Vader’s daughter, making their conflict more personal and tragic.
Lumiya shares with Lady Dominique some design elements including most notably a distinctive V-shaped helmet. While I can’t say for certain if Domininque was meant to be an echo of Lumiya, I do believe both character share inspiration in a style of women’s medieval headdress called the “Escoffion.” The inverted triangular shape of the escoffion evokes horns coming from the wearer’s head and certainly makes for an imposing appearance.
It is an established part of the Star Wars design philosophy to take archaic designs and give them a futuristic spin, from Darth Vader’s Samurai inspired helmet to Din Djarin’s knight in shining armor/Mandalorian regalia. In the case of Dominique and Lumiya, this odd design syncs perfectly with the cybernetics and circuitry inspired patterns that define the rest of their costumes.
But there may be more going on with Lady Dominque than just a similarity to an old comic book character. The design of her helmet suggests other comparisons. Clearly, her helmet is a technified iteration on Darth Nihulus’ split skull mask, but there seems to me more going on here. I can’t help but think that the slits in her helmet’s faceplate are not just random. The design evokes symbols from our world, and I wonder if it is just coincidence. One symbol is the Cross of Lorraine, which was used to inspire French patriotism and reunification during World World II. The other comes from electrical engineering and is the symbol for a common fixed capacitor.
In both cases, however, Lady Dominique’s version of the symbol is broken, suggesting dis-unification in once case or a broken connection in another. I fully admit that I may be looking for connections that aren’t there, but it does strike me as interesting that either interpretation can relate to Dominique’s disastrous attempt to merge her body and consciousness with the Mass Shadow Generator.
Regardless, she’s a really bad-ass looking Sith Lord, and whether I’m seeing things that aren’t there, nothing can change that!
UPDATE! The Vampire In the Room
I do want to mention an additional Lady D that I suspect also had some influence on Lady Dominique, that is, of course, Lady Dimitrescu, the mutant-vampire antagonistic of Capcom’s 2021 survival horror game, Resident Evil Village. Lady Dimitrescu achieved near instant meme status with her debut, and I think it’s fair to say that elements of Dominique echo Dimitrescu’s infamously tall statue and ridiculously wide brimmed hat.
I did not mention this at first because I think maybe it went without saying, but upon reflection, it might’ve been a touch of academic snobbery that led me to overlook a recent pop cultural influence in favor of ones with ties to Star Wars lore and real world symbology. Having had an extra day to rethink my position, I hope this small addendum corrects the record.