Category Archives: General Star Wars

My Plastic Pal Who’s Fun To Be With

Within Star Wars lore, SWTOR is something of an outlier. It seems to exist within a liminal space between Legends and Canon, based on the lore of the former but still influencing the latter. Mostly, however, SWTOR has been off in it’s own corner of the Star Wars universe doing it’s own thing, and speaking only for myself, I kind of like it that way. But that also means that SWTOR rarely if ever crosses over into other aspects of Star Wars fandom that I enjoy, but when it does, it’s a special event. A few years ago I wrote about how I still enjoy collecting Star Wars action figures and that remains true. Star Wars figures can be found in many scales and styles, but my focus is mostly on Hasbro’s “Black Series” line which features characters in the 1/12th scale, whose figures are roughly 6 inches tall. This week, the first character in the Black Series specifically inspired by SWTOR arrived on my doorstep: Darth Malgus.

And, boy howdy, is he terrific. Hasbro’s Black Series line is nearly as old as SWTOR, and without going into nerdy detail, Hasbro has been refining and updating the design of their figures, and all of the best hallmarks of the modern Black Series are on display here. Malgus is an entirely new sculpt with a good range of articulation; his joins are pinless, minimal and mostly unobtrusive, which means  I am able to pose him dynamically enough that he looks cool standing on my desk, and I can almost believe he jumped right out of the game!

In addition, Hasbro is now able to digitally apply paint to their figures allowing for a remarkable level of detail on Malgus’s scarred face. This extends under his breath mask which can be removed if you are willing to yank the head off its peg. Malgus is also one of the biggest, broadest Black Series figures, taller even than Darth Vader, and he towers over Revan, his fellow Darth from the Old Republic era.

The question of whether this Darth Malgus action figure is a toy or an “adult collectible” is a fair one to ask. Hasbro, I’m certain, would like to have it both ways. While I wish these figures came with a few more accessories (every Jedi and Sith should include swappable Force wielding hands, for example) and a little extra punch of paint details in the costumes, I still feel like the Black Series figures I get are worth the price, even Malgus who is a few extra bucks more than a standard figure. When it comes right down to it, similar, actual “adult collectibles” cost anywhere between four and ten times as much as a standard Black Series release; so I can’t blame Hasbro for cutting corners here and there.

I may be wrong, but I think this Black Series Darth Malgus might be the first all new bit of SWTOR merchandise we’ve seen in years. And while I know it’s not up to Broadsword, I do hope this is only the beginning. At the very least, Hasbro can’t just leave it here. If they’re gonna do Malgus, they have to do Satele Shan so we can recreate their duel on Alderaan. Hasbro recently re-released the Republic Trooper and Shae Vizla figures from the “Vintage Collection” line of 3 ¾ inch figures, and you can’t tell me that they wouldn’t also look great in the 6 inch scale next to Malgus.

To do these characters justice in plastic form, all of the figures would require original sculpts from head to toe, so whether Hasbro is able to keep producing figures based on SWTOR may depend on how well Malgus sells. As I write this, Malgus is still available in the United States from Hasbro, Entertainment Earth and Big Bad Toy Store. It’s not for me to tell you how to spend your money. As I said in my original post, these “toys” are not cheap and when deciding whether I want to get one, I have two criteria: I have to like the character, and I have to like the figure they made of it. Sometimes I’ll fudge one of those, but Malgus easily checks off both boxes, and seeing him on my shelf makes me smile.

 

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Our New Machine Overlords

This week I’d like to explore a different topic, something that has been causing a big stir in nearly every sector of the internet: the explosion of increasingly powerful Artificial Intelligence tools that create words, pictures, sounds, music, voices and movies.

Machine learning or AI has been around for quite a while already. It helps our cars stay under control in bad weather, it helps ATMs read the handwriting on our checks, and helps rice cookers maintain the right consistency of our rice. But in the last year, the power and ease of use of many AI tools has exploded, and it has becomes this year’s corporate buzz-word. I don’t think AI art is better than what a human can make, but it is certainly faster and cheaper. Ready or not, I’m certain the effect AI will have on all of us will be impossible to measure. At the very least, we all know that if these tools can be used to cut costs, they absolutely will be used, whether it is for the good of consumers or not.

While this blog is still being written by a human, I thought I’d explore how it might affect Star Wars: The Old Republic in the months and years to come. Again, AI is already a part of graphics programs and functions as a powerful tool for writing code. It is almost certainly already being used in SWTOR in ways invisible to players.

So let’s think about how AI might change one of SWTOR’s most popular and defining features: its voice acting. I’ve often heard that the voice acting is the game’s largest single expense, and I believe it. Every time our characters speak a line, forty-eight different actors across two genders, three languages and 8 class stories have been hired to speak that line or variations of it. And that’s not including all the supporting characters and companions and villains and background characters. Let’s not forget the writers, translators, audio engineers and editors and every member of the team who also are instrumental in bringing these voices to life in the game.

Alien dialogue has been used as a short-cut throughout the lifetime of the game, but it’s become more obvious with companions unlocked by the Galactic Seasons rewards track. So far, each of the four companions introduced during the seasons talk using languages from SWTOR’s library of pre-recorded alien languages, and we find out to varying degrees of plausibility why those characters speak that way. Of course it’s cheaper and easier to use pre-recorded alien languages for these interactions. I can’t blame Bioware for saving the fully-voiced characters for major story beats.

However, I think it’s fair to say that players have an easier time connecting to characters when they understand the language they are hearing. In my own case, I tend to zone out after long interactions with aliens. Unlike a foreign movie with subtitles, there isn’t a performance of the dialogue that I can relate to even if I don’t understand the meaning of the words being spoken. For example, I can’t honestly say the secondary Manaan storylines made a strong impression on me. After a certain point, I just started skimming the subtitles and space-barring through the alien speech. But I engaged more with Ruhnuc’s secondary story because, while my characters’ side of the conversations were not voiced, at least Lane Vizla and Kur Ha’rangir were.

There is a fan-made add-on for World of Warcraft that uses AI to give full voice acting to the dialogue boxes with quest text in the Classic version of the game. Although there is narrative associated with all of WOW’s quests, the vast majority of the game’s player base has long simply ignored the boxed text that quest givers deliver in order to get on with the game. The add-on does an impressive job delivering WOW’s exposition. The performances created by this add-on are not perfect, and the range of voices is limited, but it’s been stunning to see what a single add-on developer has been able to accomplish.

What if this technology could be used to make our interactions with Fen Zeil, PH4-LNX and Amity in English (and French and German) as well? If there simply isn’t enough in the budget to hire voice actors for one-off companions, wouldn’t that be a better, more player friendly option?

Let’s not stop there! SWTOR already has a vast library of recordings that could be used to train an AI to deliver realistic performances of existing characters. This is how Darth’s Vader’s dialogue was generated for the Disney+ series Obi-Wan Kenobi now that James Earl Jones has retired from the role. Similarly there are members of SWTOR‘s cast that have passed away since the game’s release. I imagine AI could be used to help bring Tanno Vik and Xalek back to the game in meaningful ways.

Let’s keep going and get rid of those “KOTOR-style” interactions and have an AI replicate the voice of the main cast for every side quest and companion recruitment mission. And how great would it be to have more companion interactions as well? Don’t worry, they won’t need to hire Laura Bailey and Troy Baker, when they already have years of recordings to use as datasets for the AI, and we’ll get to hang out with Kira and Theron whenever we want!

Look, I know these think pieces all have to have a Terminator reference, but the danger of AI doesn’t come from killer robots from the future, but from the corporations that want to cut every corner and squeeze every little guy on the way to greater quarterly profits. I don’t know the legality of this. I don’t know what’s in the fine print of the contracts the SWTOR cast signed well over a decade ago. Would it shock me (or anyone) that some suit at EA would just love to remove voice actors from SWTOR’s budget? Of course not.

Legal or not, I would not feel good about playing a game in which a computer program simulated the voice of someone without the original actor’s consent.

All I can say is this: even as the technology gets more impressive and the results so very nearly indistinguishable from the real thing, I am increasingly of the opinion that I’d rather see Luke Skywalker played by a person and not a special effect. Isn’t Star Wars better off with Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan and Donald Glover’s Lando despite the fact that they did not originate the roles?

More than a decade ago, I connected with my Consular in a way that made me love the character and love the game. It is in large part because of the performance Athena Karkanis delivered. It is in large part because of the writers and artists and developers, all the people at Bioware, who created the stories and brought SWTOR to life.

Artificial Intelligence tools are already powerful, but right now (and I suspect into the near term) still require knowledgeable and skilled human guidance to get the most out of them. Nonetheless I do believe that they will have a huge impact on how games, movies, music, books and shows will be made. Maybe one day soon we won’t be able to tell the difference between something created by a human and something generated by code, but Art at its core is about people communicating through time and media whether it is the outline of a hand traced on a cave wall tens of thousands of years ago or a video game about wizards and cowboys in space, and I think there needs to be people on both sides of that interaction for it to really be Art.

 

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Showdown on Ruhnuk Review

This week, at long last, let’s finally take a trip to the newest world added to Star Wars: The Old Republic: Ruhnuk. SWTOR’s Game Update 7.2 Showdown on Ruhnuk revisits the Mandalorian conflict begun in Onslaught’s Spirit of Vengeance flashpoint and the challenge to Shae Vizla’s rule from the mysterious Heta Kol. If you’ve yet to check out the new update, don’t worry, I’ll be keeping this light on spoilers.

This is an addition to the game that I very much enjoyed. Ruhnuk from the air is a stark, stony environment, but once you settle into its lush river canyons, the world’s beauty reveals itself. The stories told on Ruhnuk do a nice job leading players across the world’s zones, and the planet’s various exterior and interior spaces feel different enough to keep things fresh as we progress.

This update further explores Mandalorian culture which is very much front and center in the most popular Star Wars lore these days. However, this time, our character, the Alliance Commander steps aside to let Shae Vizla take the lead in this adventure. I found it amusing that Shae’s seems to treat my character in a way that SWTOR traditionally treats our companions. I’m quite okay with that. Since Fallen Empire, SWTOR has so strongly focused on the Outlander/Commander as the key figure in the larger conflict that it is nice to see the narrative put the attention elsewhere for a bit. Shae is a character with ties so deep in SWTOR lore, that it doesn’t feel out of place to give her the spotlight for a bit.

Showdown on Ruhunk’s story of feuding Mandalorian clans is the most epic in scope we’ve seen since Fallen Empire, and I had fun watching it all play out. This chapter also integrates lost Jedi Padawan Sahar Kateen and her brother Ri’kan into the narrative, so it also successfully keeps SWTOR’s main story in motion as well, and our trip to Ruhnuk doesn’t quite feel like the distraction that the events on Manaan did.

I have not yet played Showdown on Ruhnuk with a character who saved Torian during Knights of the Eternal Throne, but it was nice to see Akaavi Spar involved in the story’s events. I think Akaavi is an under-rated companion, and I’ve come to appreciate my characters’ interactions with her even if they don’t always see eye-to-eye. Likewise I enjoyed the interplay between and with the Ordo brothers, both of whom I’ve become quite fond of since their introduction. Akaavi, Jekiah and Rass are three very different characters that do a good job showing the range of personalities that those who call themselves Mandalorian can still have.

To my great surprise, the end of the main story was not the end of my time on Ruhnuk. It was, in fact, only the beginning. A second story, which I cynically assumed was meant only to introduce the daily area, once again had me criss-crossing Ruhnuk on an entirely new adventure. And then there was the “Relic Hunt” which has the players exploring the world’s hidden corners for power-ups and eventually the game’s latest Datacron.

I always take things slow, and it took me a few weeks on Ruhnuk before all I had left to do there was the daily quests. If this is to be the model for new additions going forward, I highly approve!

Daily Dally

Before I talk about Ruhnuk as a daily area, I should describe my approach to dailies these days. I mostly avoid daily areas now. To be honest, I’m bored with Conquest. Outside of Galactic and PVP Season objectives that also score Conquest points, I am not particularly motivated to do the same objectives I’ve been doing for years on end. With one odd exception I have not visited CZ-198 or the Black Hole since last fall. I know they are good sources of credits and Conquest, but I feel like I’ve done that content more than enough and I want to spend my time doing other things for a while.

I have never measured my playtime by the metric of credits-per-minute. This probably explains why the dailies I prefer are on Ziost and Iokath, two areas with unusual mechanics and less emphasis on traditional combat. During Legacy of the Sith, the majority of my daily questing has been during once a week visits to the Manaan Invasion Zone and most recently, Ruhnuk. In both cases, I progresses my reputation at a slow and steady pace, and once I capped out the reputations associated with both zones, I haven’t revisited either since.

As a daily area, Ruhnuk definitely tends towards the Iokath side of things. You can’t zip over to Ruhnuk and expect to blaze through it like CZ-198. While I was working on the Mandalorian Trat’ade (“Forces”) on Ruhnuk reputation track, I’d set aside an hour or so of time to complete the weekly quest and heroics.

And here’s the thing: I had fun doing it. I’ve often written about how I enjoy the exploration aspects of the MMO experience. I don’t mind getting lost or turned around; I like figuring out the best ways to traverse a zone, and it did take me a few weeks until I felt like I always knew where I was when on Ruhnuk.

My time on Ruhnuk was not without hitches. Looking back, I wish I’d completed the Relic Hunt quest chain before focusing on the dailies and reputation track because having access to the Jump Pad shortcuts really make a difference when questing there. In my final weeks doing the dailies with the perks unlocked, I felt comfortable on the planet and cleared the dailies at a pace that felt good to me.

Do I plan to keep going back every week? Nope. And I’m fine with that. I don’t think whether Ruhnuk should be deemed a success should hinge on how fast it takes to do the dailies or how efficient it is as a source of Conquest. If I want quick Conquest points, there are dozens of things to do in SWTOR that I’ve done dozens of times to score those points. I’d rather judge a zone by how I felt exploring it and what nooks and crannies I discovered on the way.

Because it doesn’t feel like we’re done on Ruhnuk. The second story involving Lane Vizla and Clan Ha’rangir certainly feels unfinished. And there are interactable objects and extra areas all over the world that seem like they might be relevant to adventures to come.

Until then the reputation track offers a ton of cool decorations (not to mention the dozens I looted while questing), a fun mount and one of the best looking Legacy armor sets in the game. At the very least, the Legacy titles unlocked along the way “Be’mand’alor Tomad”/”Mandalore’s Ally” and “Par’jilla Gehat’ik”/”A Tale of Triumph” are cool for anyone roleplaying a Bounty Hunter. I don’t feel like my time on Ruhnuk was wasted.

Well, mostly. I farmed up the two items necessary to unlock the “Wraid Night” achievement and discovered that the drop rate for one, the Fresh Dewback Corpse, is way, way too low. I told my guild-mates we’d complete the achievement on our fun run night, and in preparation I spent hours upon hours over three days mindlessly killing dewbacks. This reminded me of those truly awful vanilla World of Warcraft quests with horrible drop rates, and what should’ve been a fun and funny achievement left an extremely sour taste in my mouth.

My other wish is that the power-up perks unlocked by the Relic Hunt quest should be Legacy wide, especially since the hunt ends with the discovery of Ruhnuk’s Datacron whose benefit does apply to my entire Legacy. As I mentioned earlier, those perks make questing on Ruhnuk easier, and I think it’s fair that alts have convenient access to them since there is no need for them to hunt down the Datacron.

Clan Ha’rangir

Finally, let’s take a look at a brand new Mandalorian banner, which we discover on Ruhnuk and can be also unlocked as a stronghold decoration. The banner belongs to Clan Ha’rangir, the latest erstwhile Mandalorian clan to have joined Heta Kol’s crusade. This banner is interesting to examine because there are elements of its design that directly relate to what kind of clan Ha’rangir is.

Most obviously, the writing on it is not Mandalorian at all. It’s the ancient script that SWTOR players first encountered on Ossus, and is typically associated in Star Wars lore with the Jedi and Sith. But not in all cases. After seizing control of Jabba the Hutt’s palace, Boba Fett sits on a throne engraved with this ancient form of writing. I think we can conclude that both the Hutts and Clan Ha’rangir chose this “language” to establish and connect themselves to something that is not just old and traditional, but something ancient and immemorial.

Likewise, the clan itself is named after the Mandalorian god of the underworld Kad Ha’rangir; indeed, its clan leader Kur Ha’rangir claims to be a descendant of the god himself, a bold claim to make in any era, but especially in one where the Mandalorians don’t seem to be particularly religious. It does do a lot to suggest that the goals and methods of Clan Ha’rangir aren’t just old fashioned, they’re positively medieval.

It will probably not come as a shock to learn that the symbol emblazoned on the banner is not a traditional Mandalorian Mythosaur skull, but a helmet that matches the only known depiction in Star Wars lore of Kad Ha’rangir who is shown wearing armor festooned with barbs, spines and spikes, and that is reflected in its symbolic appearance on the banner.

I am no expert in Mando’a, the Mandalorian language, but my best guess for a translation of “Ha’rangir” would be something along the lines of “Hell Fish” which suggests to me that Kad Ha’rangir is decked out in armor inspired not by a Porcupine as it might appear at first glance, but rather a Puffer Fish. I’m certain Kur Ha’rangir would condemn me as a heretic for such a assertion, but I stand by my interpretation.

As we discover on Ruhnuk, Clan Ha’rangir’s focus is on restoring a mythical past that probably never really existed while ruthlessly consuming whatever resources it takes to make their vision of Mandalore a reality. The motto on their banner speaks of tradition, but it’s a hollow promise, nothing more than a flimsy excuse for more war and conquest without regard for the future of the Mandalorian traditions they obliterate along the way.

 

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Andor Review

SWTOR‘s 7.2 Game update Showdown on Ruhnuc just launched, and once again the game finds a way to end the year on a high note. While I gather my thoughts on this year of SWTOR, I also want to put down on the record my two credits about the latest live action Star Wars story.

Season one of Andor is an impressive accomplishment. At its core it is a show about the birth of the Rebel Alliance as seen from Cassian Andor’s perspective. But it’s not only about Cassian, and indeed in his life, he is often powerless in the face of forces he cannot control, from his “rescue” from Kenari to arrest on the resort world of Niamos.

Because the show has bigger fish to fry, it also makes sure to tell the stories of other key figures in the early days of the fight against the Empire. Most familiar to Star Wars fans is Mon Mothma who has gone from a one note character from a single scene in Return of the Jedi to someone who faces a struggle against the Empire that has left her as trapped and desperate as anyone else. It has been remarkable to see Geneveive O’Reilly take Mothma from a sadly deleted scene in Revenge of the Sith to an assuredly played key player in both Rogue One and Andor.

I think the message of Andor is that the Rebellion was not born of one thing; the protagonist of this season is clearly Stellan Skarsgård’s Luthan Rael whose goal is to bring together an alliance that can credibly fight the Empire. He is, by any means necessary, working to unite scattered factions of politicians, spies, smugglers, criminals and terrorists into a whole, even if it means lying to one group or sacrificing another. In Star Wars lore, the Rebellion is typically presented as the “good guys”, but Andor wants to add some nuance to that portrayal.

The show is about the struggle for the soul of the Rebellion. The climax of Rogue One is, of course, the resolution of this conflict, but in Andor we hear many voices describe what rebellion means to them. Nemik’s manifesto details what the Empire’s banal evil is. In Coruscant’s underbelly, Luthan declares how far he is willing to go in the fight. Kino Loy exhorts his fellow prisoners to take their escape in the only direction where it can go. In the finale, Maarva’s epic self-eulogy is a call to arms to everyone within the sound of her voice telling them why they must fight.

Cassian Andor confronts Syril Karn on Morlana One.

It’s all thrilling stuff, and Deigo Luna is fantastic as Cassian who strives to find his place in the midst of this chaos. You don’t have to strain very hard to see parallels in the politics and conflicts of our world’s all too recent history. From its very beginning, Star Wars has worn its anti-fascist politics on its sleeve, and Andor looks to explore the ways people fight back in their most desperate hour. After one season, it hasn’t offered easy solutions or a happy ending. We know how things end for Cassian, but the show has made it clear that no one is safe. Take Mon Mothma, the only character on the show whose survival is assured; when we revisit her again in Return of the Jedi, the Bothans are only the latest in a long line of losses she’s endured in the intervening years.

Under Tony Gilroy’s stewardship, Andor also approaches the cinematic scope of an actual Star Wars movie better than any other Disney+ show so far. In tone and story, it is very much like its own thing, but still feels like Star Wars as well. Season two is quite a ways off, but I’ll be there for it as soon as it drops.

Is Andor the Best Star Wars?

I’ll just cut to the chase. No, I don’t think so.

This section was originally a lot more ranty, went through several revisions, and I nearly abandoned the whole review altogether, but I came around to feeling like I did have something to say about Andor.

Discourse within Star Wars fandom has always been kind of bad, and even from the distant outer rim of things where I live these days, it feels worse. So much of it boils down to people who want to make which Star Wars you like a zero-sum game and then pit one sub-group of fans against another. “If you don’t like Rogue One, you’re wrong and not a real Star Wars fan.” “If you don’t like The Last Jedi, you’re wrong and not a real Star Wars fan.” “If you don’t like the Zahn trilogy, you’re wrong and not a real Star Wars fan”, etc., etc.…

Even leaving aside the CHUDs mining bad faith click baiting shit-takes, it can be exhausting even just to ignore it all.

Among people who mean well, it can get to be a bit much too. I get it. After more than four decades there is a lot of Star Wars out there and sorting through it all is not for the faint of heart. But when it comes to Star Wars, I’m not gonna pick just one. I like apples AND oranges.

Take Andor and Book of Boba Fett. Comparisons only get you so far. They are very different shows with very different ambitions. Book of Boba Fett was pretty much naff; Andor has things on its mind. However, I suspect that if I were eight years old, I’d much prefer Book of Boba Fett, a show with jet packs, high noon shoot outs, and monster vs. robot action, to a show mainly about people talking, in which the hero shoots unarmed people and someone is psychically tortured by the cries of murdered children.

Mon Mothma carefully navigates the political waters of Coruscant.

Ultimately, I think the best Star Wars should probably land somewhere in the middle. I don’t think that’s a spicy take at all. Ideally, of course, I want Star Wars to be smart AND fun, but it doesn’t always hit that mark, and at my most sanguine I might even admit that it rarely hits the mark at all.

All that said, I think it’s good that there are  Star Wars stories with different styles, tones and perspectives. I’ll even go so far to say that this sort of variety is necessary for Star Wars to find and connect with new fans. That I don’t consider Andor to be “The Best Star Wars” does not at all detract from how much I like the show. Hate on Disney all you want, but we’re getting more Star Wars content now than at any time in the franchise’s history. I’m glad they’re willing to explore different stories with lots of creators. In the old days, Andor would’ve been, at best, a second-rate paperback novel, and not the high quality production we got. It’s cool we can pick and choose the shows and movies and novels and comics and video games we like and shouldn’t have to feel like we need to watch, read or play it all, because, holy cats, there is a lot of it.

I gave up years ago trying to keep up with everything, but I do not and would never think that the slice of Star Wars pie that I enjoy is the only Star Wars worth tasting. I love it when someone’s genuine enthusiasm as a fan or a creator encourages me to try something different. As for the parts I don’t like, I honestly don’t give them much thought, and I sure as shebs don’t take it personally. I cannot possibly imagine holding a grudge against someone who just wanted to tell a Star Wars story.

Of all the hills to die on, that’s the stupidest.

 

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Dominique and Lumiya

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.

 

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Andor and SWTOR

This week’s post is a quick one, and only indirectly related to SWTOR. The Disney+ series Andor launched today, and it has its own logo. Although the logo has been constantly changing over the course of the build up to its debut to the point that the version used in the title sequence is different from the one appearing in the show’s latest marketing materials, each logo has shared traits that I thought were interesting. In tribute, I decided I’d reinterpret it in Aurebesh with a bit of a SWTOR twist.

If I’m being honest, I’m not sure I quite pulled it off, but I did have fun in the attempt at least. The most distinctive trait of the Andor logo is the letter O formed in negative space between the D and R. Trying to pull of the same trick with an Aurebesh Wesk or W is pushing the readability of that illusion to its limit. To make it work, I had to trim off half of the lower arm of the letter Trill or T, but since the Andor logo removed the bar in the center of its A, I feel like this cheat is consistent with the original design.

The small Star Wars logo was inspired by/shamelessly ripped off from AurekFonts who has worked to archive and catalogue Star Wars’ long and varied history of alien typefaces across all its lore.

The red letters at the bottom are my own bespoke Aurebesh with serifs, which I’ve used here and there over the years. At best, I’d call it a “work in progress,” but at this point I’ve nearly completed the alphabet, so if I’ve got it, I’m gonna use it!

As for Andor itself, don’t worry, there are no spoilers here! If I choose to write about it, it won’t be until well after the season ends. For now, I’m hoping to enjoy it as it comes out this fall.

 

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What About Kenobi, Though?

Disney+’s Obi-Wan Kenobi series recently concluded, and I’ve come away from it with a few thoughts I’d like to share. Given the focus of this blog, I do want to touch on its connections and shared themes with SWTOR, but let’s start with a review of the series as a whole. I can’t promise to avoid spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the show and want to go in fresh, feel free to skip this post.

Overall, I very much enjoyed the show, and rate it the best of Disney+’s live action Star Wars endeavors. Ewan McGregor is one of Star Wars’ most charismatic actors and seeing him slip back into the role of Ben Kenobi again (or maybe for the first time) was an absolute pleasure.  And while it takes a while before we see it, I think it’s fair to call Hayden Christiansen a familiar face as well, and it is cool at long last to see him get his due as Darth Vader. The showdowns between their two characters do a good job splitting the difference between the “Super Saiyan” Darth Vader of Rogue One and the “Old Men Waving Sticks at Each Other” from A New Hope. To me, the show’s version of Vader elides very well indeed with his depictions in the movies.

I also want to compliment Moses Ingram’s performance as Reva, the Third Sister. Star Wars villains tend to fall into two catagories: moody adolescents and somewhat campy old men. Reva is rather different. She is consumed by pure, barely-controlled rage that she inflicts on everyone in her path, innocent victim and supposed ally alike. Reva clearly got dealt a raw deal. She hates the universe and wants to pay it back in kind. Ingram put all of that right there on the surface, but doesn’t go over the top with it, so that when the time comes, and Reva sees where all this hate has left her, it is an affecting moment. I don’t think that’s an easy thing to pull off.

I’ve often thought that there was potential for Obi-Wan stories that could be told of his exile on Tatooine. I mainly thought these would be tales about Old Ben and Young Luke having a Lone Wolf and Cub style adventure. Instead Obi-Wan Kenobi gave me something I didn’t know I wanted: an Old Ben and Young Leia adventure, and the interactions between the two characters are, by far, the best part of the show. Leia being exactly the sassy, troublemaker I’d have expected her to be at that age was a delight, and she serves as the perfect antidote to Ben’s regret-laden cynicism that I’m not sure even Luke could match.

On the negative side, I wonder if this story started out as a movie and not a series. I think there is a thrilling and tight two hour movie in here, but as a six episode series, if feels padded out. You can see the show straining against its limitations compared to a movie. The hanger rescue at the end of episode four is a good example, since it compares poorly to similar sequences from The Force Awakens and Rise of Skywalker. With more time, resources, stuntwork and planning, it might’ve been a spectacular set piece, but instead it was staged about as blandly as you might expect of a “TV show” cutting corners and filling out its season before the big finale.

I’d also argue that parts of the plot are driven along by happenstance a bit more than necessary. The show’s very last story beat was made possible because Reva happened upon the holo-transmitter that happened to have been dropped by Haja and that happened to reveal the location of Luke Skywalker that Bail Organa happened to recklessly reveal to Obi-Wan who already knew that information. Rather than have Reva organically discover Luke herself, his location is just handed to her out of the blue. It strikes me as sloppy storytelling.

There are also issues of continuity, but if I’m being honest. I don’t care. Continuity is a tool, not a straightjacket, and retcons are part and parcel of telling stories in shared spaces. I think it is fair to strategically ignore minor plot points from one story so that they can be explored fully in another. Much hay has been made from calling Star Wars “modern mythology”, but all folklore, from the heroes of ancient Greece to the Knights of the Round Table to the cowboys and Indians of the American West, are stories told by different people in different places and different times. Telling old stories in new ways from new perspectives is the very definition of folklore, so I’m not going to be bothered by inconsistencies in movies and TV shows separated by decades.

Yet if the show drags in places, it does, unlike the Book of Boba Fett, make up for it in ways that a tighter, streamlined version of this story would likely have had to gloss over. For example, I’m very glad that the show got to spend time showing Bail and Breha and Owen and Beru being loving parents to Leia and Luke. Those relationships are footnotes in the original movies, but they are just as, if not more important, as the twins’ blood ties to Vader.

Most importantly, I think Obi-Wan Kenobi‘s finale stuck the landing. The climatic confrontation was strong both as a duel of Force users, but also an emotional conflict between brothers turned enemies. At first I thought maybe they’d cribbed a bit too much from Ahsoka’s battle with Vader in Star Wars: Rebels, but the way Anakin’s voice intermingled with Vader’s as he told Ben “You didn’t kill Anakin Skywalker. I did.” was a punch to the gut, and this scene alone makes this story a worthy addition to Star Wars lore.

The show ends with a couple of moments that I might consider to be fan-service if they weren’t so well earned. Liam Nesson is the best part of The Phantom Menace, and his brief appearance is a welcome resolution to Ben’s arc from the very first episode. And meme or not, I must tip my hat to the show for its perfect deployment of the line “Hello there.”

From Kenobi to Beniko

Finally, I think it might be fun to look at the show from the perspective of a SWTOR player. Certainly this adventure leaves little doubt that Obi-Wan is a Sage, and as someone who has mained a Sage since launch, I sure would like to pull off some of his moves in the game. No more pebbles, Bioware, only boulders!

There are striking visual and conceptual parellels between Vader’s battle with Obi-Wan in episode three and Vaylin’s confrontation with Senya in SWTOR’s Betrayed cinematic. Both Anakin and Vaylin were robbed of their childhoods and came into their own broken and betrayed by those who should have nurtured them. Like Obi-Wan, Senya is consumed by her regrets and failure to protect her children. It takes more than being one with the Force to raise a kid in this screwed up galaxy, it seems.

Unlike, Vader, Vaylin’s story may not be over just yet, so I’m curious to see how much like the Dark Lord of the Sith she truly becomes.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, like so much Star Wars lore, explores stories of characters struggling to become who they are in a world where it’s not always clear if the Force is with you or it serves you. Are Reva and Lana Sith? Are Ahsoka and Sa’har Jedi? And should those labels matter?

These questions can be the foundations of interesting stories. And that is kind of why I love Star Wars.

 

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Walking on Black Sunshine

This week I’ve maxed out the second Galactic Season track, and I thought it would be a good excuse to take a look at some alien writing that ties into this season’s underworld theme.

If you’ve ever visited the Black Hole sector on Coruscant, even if only to do the “Face Merchants” heroic, then you’ve seen that the neighborhood is covered in graffiti which makes it clear that the sector is under the control of the Black Sun criminal syndicate.

Black Sun’s first appearance in Star Wars lore was in 1996 as part of the Shadows of the Empire multimedia event designed to give to fans all the books, toys, comics, video games, soundtracks and merchandise that they’d expect from the release of a brand new Star Wars movie, only without an actual movie itself. Several of the concepts, characters and vehicles introduced in Shadows found there way into other Star Wars stories, but Black Sun with its distinctive logo and ominous name has remained a regular presence in stories set on the seedier side of the Star Wars universe.

SWTOR players will discover that Black Sun was born out of the chaos caused by Darth Malgus’ surprise attack on Coruscant, a seminal event in the Old Republic’s history. Even after the siege of Coruscant was broken, the Republic capital’s security forces were in disarray, and entire sectors of the world were left to fend for themselves. This void was eagerly filled by crimelords and gangsters who united to seize control of as much territory in Coruscant’s lower levels as they good. Helpless citizens under their thumbs ultimately had no choice but to hope that better a black sun than none. Black Sun’s advancement was nearly unchecked for years, and in that time they became a syndicate whose influence reached both across the galaxy and the ages into the era of the Clone Wars and the Rebellion against the Empire.

The Black Sun graffiti in SWTOR is written using two languages. The first is, of course, Aurebesh, but it is written in a free hand style appropriate for its context as spray painted vandalism tagged on a wall. Handwriting seems to be something of a lost art in Star Wars, with examples in lore being few and far between until the appearance of the “sacred Jedi texts” in The Last Jedi. In SWTOR, as in Star Wars in general, freehand writing most often appears as graffiti. In the example above, the larger text declares Black Sun’s presence with bold authority, and the smaller slogan threatens that they are as inevitable as the dawn.

The second language used for the smaller tag is now called “Outer Rim Basic” but at the time these graphics were created for SWTOR it was generally known as Huttese, and I’ll stick with that identification here. This writing style first appeared during the pod-racing sequences in The Phantom Menace, and iterations of it can be found in many other stories that touch on Star Wars’ criminal underworld. Fans of The Book of Boba Fett on Disney+ might recognize the graffiti tag used by the Kintan Strider’s swoop gang as being the letter “K” in a version of Huttese/Outer Rim Basic.

Given the overlap and rivalry between Star Wars’ various criminal syndicates,  it does not strike me as out of place to see Huttese used in this circumstance. For example, Skadge, the infamous and not-quite beloved companion from the Bounty Hunter story, at various times worked for both Black Sun and the Hutt Cartel, although his time with the Hutts (like most of Skadge’s relationships, I’d wager) ended in betrayal and violence. Regardless, an association with the Hutts, whether real or implied, could only help Black Sun’s burgeoning reputation in its early days, both with others gangs and local citizens who doubtless already knew of the danger of crossing the Hutts.

Nevertheless, for those interior decorators who would like to add a dash of scum and villainy to their stronghold’s ambiance, the Black Sun-Graffitied Underworld Couch is a reward for subscribers and free-to-play players alike at the fifth level of the current Galactic Season. As you kick back and plop your backside on top of it, take note, perhaps ironically, that it has been tagged with the same graffiti seen in my recreation above.

 

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Star Wars: Visions Review

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed any Star Wars tales outside of SWTOR. Although I generally liked The Mandalorian and Bad Batch, I didn’t come away from them feeling like I had much to offer to the conversations around those shows. But having finished Star Wars: Visions this week, I did want to put some thoughts down while they’re fresh. I will, for the most part, avoid spoilers since I feel like we are still within the window of letting folks watch at their own pace. I don’t follow anime as much as I used to, but I did grow up with some of the series that made it over to North America in my youth. A French translation of Captain Harlock was my first exposure to anime, and, as a kid, I was enthralled by Starblazers and then Robotech, which in spite of how the original shows were truncated and transformed for western audiences, were clearly unlike any other cartoons on my TV. I had no interest in He-man or Transformers, but to this day I can still sing every lyric to the Starblazers theme song. When anime exploded in popularity in the US in the 90’s, it was cool to be able to easily see (often even in the theater!) films like Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Princess Mononoke. But aside from the odd movie or series here and there, I haven’t watched as much I used to. However, from the get-go, Visions seemed neat, and I certainly was gonna check it out.

To start, I’ll just lay my cards out on the table and get my one spoiler out of the way. Watching someone surfing on the nose of an X-Wing as they cut a Star Destroyer in half with a lightsaber is the Star Wars content I’m here for. I’ve always preferred it when Star Wars bends towards the mystical and weird, so I connected with many of the stories told by Visions. More space rabbits, laser umbrellas, outrageous duels and metalhead Hutts, please.

Clocking in at around 15 minutes each, the episodes don’t have a ton of space to breathe, so the breakneck pace didn’t do some of the stories any favors; maybe too much was left implied and unresolved. I ended up watching the whole series in one or two episode batches over a weekend. Not surprisingly, the installments share many of the same themes, symbols and even story beats, and had I binged the whole thing at once, it might’ve felt repetitive. At the very least, hearing “I have a bad feeling about this” every 15 minutes would’ve gotten old. But taken on their own and with some separation between them, I think I was able to get into each episode a bit more and appreciate the stylistic approach each team brought to the table. I have never been a purist when it comes to the sub vs. dub debate in anime, but in this case I do think that the episodes tend to sound better in the original Japanese with subtitles. Often the the English dub falls into the clichés of anime dubs in which English dialogue is awkwardly verbose and delivered very, very fast.

Given the focus of my blog, I would, of course, be remiss if I did not call attention to the appearance in the episode The Village Bride of an XS Freighter which every Smuggler in SWTOR will know and love as their class ship. The XS is a neat mashup of the Millennium Falcon and the Ebon Hawk, and it’s cool to see it pop up in an unexpected setting. If I’m being honest, the class ships have been neglected in SWTOR lately, so I’m glad at least one can get in on the action again. And additional points to the animators at Kinema Citrus for making an Old Republic reference to something other than Revan, who might be as close to overexposed as anything from that era can get.

Overall, I enjoyed Visions. If nothing else, I found it to be at least interesting. And if not every episode was great, each story’s individual approach to the material and setting gave me something to think about. I can see how the show might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but projects like this keep Star Wars fresh for new and old audiences alike. The answer to the question of which Star Wars movie or show someone should watch first does not have a simple answer these days, but Visions covers a lot of ground, and I think any kid or kid-at-heart can find at least one or two episodes to kick back and enjoy whether they’re coming at it as an anime fan or a Star Wars fan. Ultimately, I think Star Wars: Visions successfully accomplished an anthology’s job of leaving me wanting more, but not needing more.

But I can hear you asking the important question: what about the Aurebesh? And, yep, its all over Visions too. Its most prominent use comes in the episode T0-B1, and fortunately its translation is not a spoiler. Somewhat to my surprise, the Aurebesh does not translate into Japanese or English, but into Spanish. And while I’m not 100 percent certain, I am confident that the holographic text displayed in the episode is snippets of lyrics from the Latin flamenco pop song “MALAMENTE (Cap.1: Augurio)” by Rosalía. I have never been of the opinion that Aurebesh should be used strictly literally. It functions mainly to establish the flavor of Star Wars‘ space fantasy setting whether the translation makes sense in context or not. This blog is filled with numerous references to my favorite songs, so I heartily approve of the animators slipping in a tribute to music they like as well.

That’s all for now, but I’ll be back in a couple of days to celebrate this blog’s fifth anniversary!

 

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That Which Does Not Kill Us

With SWTOR‘s next game update “Dark Descent” arriving in just a few days, I figure it was high time to finally translate the third of three Mandalorian themed banners introduced late last year in the Spirits of Vengeance flashpoint.

While it was the last one I recreated, this will be the first one players encounter on their journey through the flashpoint on board the Clan Varad crewed starship, Champion’s Glory.

The sign is gold with purple and black accents and features a fitting slogan for the Clan. Described as “restless” by a Dark Lord of the Sith and bloodthirsty by most everyone else, Clan Varad served as the antagonists of the flashpoint Mandalorian Raiders and are likely already familiar to many players of the game.

The slogan is vague enough to appeal to the single-minded goals of Clan Varad, but it does beg the question: “Strongest at what?” I doubt Mandalorians who align with Varad have much interest in self-reflection so the question seems likely answered by whichever beskar-pot dictator shows up with the biggest blasters that day. Millennia later, these would go on to be the last words of the Deathwatch’s Pre Vizsla, so the slogan remains fittingly ironic.

When Is A Skull Not A Skull?

All three of the posters featured in the Spirit of Vengeance flashpoint feature unique and truly very cool takes on the famous skull icon made famous by Boba Fett. Of the three new symbols, the skull on the Clan Varad banner is most similar to the classic Mythosaur skull, but this version has a hand-printed texture rather than a stamped one, suggesting that if nothing else, Varad is far more hands-on than most Mandalorian clans.

Next up, the Darmanda logo from the Fortune’s Folly is quite similar in shape to the skull, but more closely evokes the contours of the equally if not more famous T-shaped visor of the Mandalorian helmet, but with a sleek, futuristic flair.

I alluded to this in the post in which I translated the banner from Heta Kol’s ship, the Seeker’s Vigil, but I might as well put my tin-foil hat theory on the record sooner rather than later. I suspect that symbol is not a skull at all, but the hilt of a weapon. But what weapon? Now, the Darksaber as seen on the shows The Clone Wars and The Mandalorian was created well after the events of Star Wars: The Old Republic, but what if Heta Kol is looking to create or acquire a proto-Darksaber? While other weapons inspired by modern Star Wars lore have found their way into SWTOR, this distinct take on the lightsaber feels conspicuous by its absence. This addition could also firmly connect Shae Vizla to Clan Vizsla, which has also played a significant role in Star Wars stories recently.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it, and it’s just a fancy skull. Hopefully we’ll find out before too long!

 

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