Wednesday, December 28, 2011

SW:TOR: The Esseles (Flashpoint)

[Spoiler!] I made a Jedi Knight do see if he is more fun than the sage. This is my review of the first Republic Flashpoint, Esseles.

When I get the mission for Esseles, I am told that there is a fast and dangerous way to where I want to go and a slow but safe one. The fast and dangerous one is the Flashpoint. The slow and safe one is a teleport.

Inside the transport ship (the Esseles), I am contacted by a blue woman. She suspects that an Imperial ship is following us. A few seconds later that ship attacks us and we have to fight security droids to get to the bridge. Pretty bad technology those droids if an attack on our ship makes them turn against us.

Once at the bridge I need to calm down the second-in-command, as the captain was killed by random explosions on the bridge. These ships really need better design and not have the captain sit next to exploding computers. After a little while the Imperial captain contacts us. He doesn't actually want to destroy our ship. At least not just yet. Instead, he wants to capture an ambassador on our ship who turns out to be the blue woman.

During the conversation the Imperial captain tells us that they are right now boarding us and where. I make a quick jump out of immersion and to the meta-level of story telling. It would be absolutely stupid of the Imperial captain to tell us this. It's probably a story telling-tool, just like the fact that the blue woman talked to us in the beginning.

Before I leave the bridge I look through the large windows to see the Imperial ship endlessly fireing weapons at ... I don't know what ..
Anyway, we make our way down to the specified location and defeat four imperials. Somehow we also have to fight Imperials on the way down there. Seems there are a lot more boarding parties, really. Anyway. We reach the location and defeat some boss guy.

Next, the ambassador joins us and tells us that it was a ruse and the real boarding party just captured and sealed off our bridge. I am forced out of immersion and make a meta-level story-telling note to myself: “lol”.
So I was wrong: the hint to go down here wasn't bad story telling. Instead it was a ruse. And one that was so damn obvious that I thought it's a stupid story-telling trick. My character seems to be not very smart. And, by the way, I have already encountered lots and lots of boarding parties ...

We now try to gain control of our ship, the Esseles, back. Sure, there's an Imperial Warship right in front of us and it could destroy us if they wanted, but they want the Ambassador alive, who is with me now. We go to the engineering room to ask for help. There we are told that there are two ways to circumvent the lockdown. The one is to reset the reactor core. But that empties the reactor room with everyone inside into space (don't ask). The other one is to destroy a few electronic devices.

The first one is a dark side option, the second one is a light side one. Honestly, at this point, I have no way to make an educated decision. I need to know how long that second option would take and why speed is important in the first place. Of course we pick the light side option. Who would make a light-side character to then make dark side dialogue choices?

Disabling the electronic devices is very quick. It turns out they were just around the corner, really. We now are on the way to the bridge. There, the second boss, Ironfist, tells us all kind of crap that is supposed to make us feel good and heroic (“I thought your are more”). We then attack him.

After the victory we decide that in order to flee from the Imperial Warship we need to disable the tractor beam. Before we leave, the commanding officer convinces the ambassador to join us because she knows that layout of the Imperial ship. The ambassador agrees. A few seconds later the commanding officer contacts us alone and asks us to leave the ambassador on the Imperial ship because even if we managed to disable the tractor beam, the Imperials would just chase us down again. The only way for the Esseles to escape is to give the Imperials what they want and then flee.

We can decide what to do later. For now we fly over to the Imperial vessel. There is no explanation as to what the Imperial ship does now that they have lost contact with Ironfist. Nobody seems to be afraid that they might destroy our ship. There's also no indication as to how we manage to get our shuttle through the space cannon fire. We are teleported to the Imperial ship.

Now we fight through lots of Imperials at the imperial ship. During the whole time the Imperial Captain uses the comlink to entertain us. He tells us how brave we are, how unexpected, etc. A quick immersion-killing jump to the meta-level of story telling makes me understand that he is just trying to make us feel powerful so that we enjoy EA's game more. At least that's the only explanation I have for this captain chatting with us instead of commandeering his soldiers. The idea that time is important doesn't come up, by the way. We take our time chatting with him.

At no point does anybody fear that the Imperial Captain might now destroy the Esseles - after all he knows that the ambassador is on his ship now. He doesn't need the Esseles anymore. He could destroy our only chance to get away. Be he is too dump to count to three and so are we ...

After many chats and some boss fights the Imperial captain manages to sneak a Sith to our shuttle where our ambassador waited for us. I try to forget that we took the Ambassador with us because she knew the layout of the Imperial ship. We left her at our shuttle alone with a little escort, where her knowledge of the layout of the Imperial vessel seems a bit wasted. whatever.

We kill the Sith just seconds before he ... killed the ambassador? Now that wouldn't make a lot of sense. After all the Imperials wanted her alive. That's why they didn't destroy our ship right away. But then they also don't seem to want to destroy the Esseles anyway. At this point I am waaaay out of immersion. I'm struggling trying to figure out what is the story, what is just the usage of bad story-telling tools and what is a loophole in the story. And how anybody could oversee loopholes the size of the moon.

We kill that Sith and then decide to (surprise) not leave the Ambassador behind. Our shuttle doesn't seem to have any problems getting through the enemy fire and back to our ship: teleport. At no point does my character even consider this flight as being a risk.

Once back on board we activate the engines and off we are. The Imperial ship doesn't do anything against it. They don't even try to destroy us after their tractor beam was disabled. They apparently didn't try to send more boarding parties after the defeat of the first. The idea that they might follow us and capture us again turns out to be wrong, too. As usual, choosing the light side of the force turns out to not have any disadvantages and certainly not the disadvantages that might have made us decide to select the dark side option.

Conclusion: If I accept this as a game and just a game, it's nice. If the story was meant to add anything of value to the game, well, it didn't. Not for me at least.


  1. At no point does anybody fear that the Imperial Captain might now destroy the Esseles - after all he knows that the ambassador is on his ship now.

    How would he know this? She's never with you when you talk to him via holocommunicator, so he hasn't seen her, and she wears a generic uniform to disguise herself so she doesn't stand out. Sounds to me like you're assuming that everyone in the story must know everything you know for no reason. :P

    As for things like "how does our shuttle not get shot down", in Star Wars it's pretty established that small ships have pretty good survivability against larger ones, sort of like a fly buzzing around a human. It's true to the source material if nothing else.

  2. How would he know this?

    He sends a Sith to capture her ... ;)

  3. on a somewhat related note; if you're interested in the story of Revan, the jedi knight obtains a companion later on that is a major character in the Revan novel.

  4. Nope, he sends a Sith to capture you when you return to your shuttle, as he's getting fed up with your meddling. :) That the ambassador is there too is happy surprise.

  5. Ok, even if we accept this, Shintar, the second the captain knows that the ambassador is on board of his ship he should try to destroy our ship, shouldn't he ?

    And after he lost contact with Ironfist he should send new boarding parties, shouldn't he? Especially if he thinks that the embassador is still on our ship.

    On the small ship evading big cannons - I can accdept this. But I'm sure that big Imperial vessel has a few Tie Fighters .. :)

  6. Who says he didn't try? By that point it was already free of the tractor beams however and not as easy a target.

  7. Mmh, Shintar, you make a lot of assumptions. Look, I, too, can imagine a complex background story, which the player isn't aware off, and which makes everything make sense.

    But good story telling doesn't require this.

  8. Hehe, I didn't think that I made any complex assumptions, I just took the story as it was presented and thought it made sense. IMO you're the one making some assumptions in this post that aren't actually backed up by anything you see in the flashpoint, such as that the Imperial Captain must know about the ambassador moving via some unknown source, or that the Sith must be giving instant feedback to his Captain the moment he sees the ambassador.

    Out of curiosity, what's your attitude towards the Star Wars movies? I can't help but think that they must be pretty awful when subjected to this kind of analysis.

  9. What I would like to see is my character think about these things, Shintar. I want him to at least say. "Hey, we need to make sure nobody knows that the ambasssador is with us".

    He doesn't. He completely ignores this problem. The entire story ignores it. I would be absolutely satisfied if the characters spent 5 seconds to discuss that they hope that there are no Tie fighters who can shoot down the shuttle. And I also raised many more points in the post.

    Why can our shuttle actually land in an Imperial landing bay, while the Imperials have to use specifically designed boarding transporters to cut in our hull?

    In the end I don't think that most players imagine the kind of story you just described while they play this mission. I think this is ex-post reasoning by you.

    I loved the original Star Wars movies. I am quite able to suspend disbelieve, actually. It's also much easier if I am not an actor, but just a watcher. Being an actor makes me think more about what I would do in a situation.

  10. Well, I think it comes down to a matter of different preferences then. You're right that I didn't actually think about all those little details while I was playing, simply because they didn't matter to me. (Though I don't think that they reveal massive loopholes if you do look at them more closely, which is what I was trying to say above.) I treated the whole thing as an adventurous romp, not as planning a serious war operation. In that context I'd actually find too much talk about every possible "what if" pretty boring. Just like I didn't need a scene in the original Star Wars where Luke and Han worry about what they'll do if the Stormtrooper uniforms they are about to steal are the wrong size and don't fit.

  11. Well, you are right in so far as most players are probably like you. Otherwise Bioware would include at least 'second-level' considerations in their stories.

    My problem here is that I am not able to disable my brain at this level. And I am seriously jealous of people who can.
    I do think about the mentioned things while I play the mission - I can't change it - and then the whole mission somehow doesn't make sense.

    I am able to decide to ignore something specific for the duration of a story. But as an actor in a computer game I do start to think about what I would do. I call this immersion.

    This immersion is broken if I constantly have to make the meta-story decisions to ignore something. Like when the Imperial captain told me where his boarding team is going to board. I can't help but think about why he does that.

    If these things happen too often, I stop having fun. Right after the flashpoint I quit SW:TOR and rather wrote the blog post. Now I surf the internet, instead of playing.

  12. I'd argue that good story telling is not about spoon-feeding the "readers", but about giving enough of a story where the readers can fill in the blanks themselves. If this were not the case, books would just come with pictures of every character and environment, and they would leave no part of the story to the imagination. How fun is that?

    Another thing to note is that if one wants to be immersed in a story they can't be overly analytical at the same time. Its like a scientist trying to beleive in religion. Belief requires immersion without question, thats why I am not very religious.

    I do love to immerse myself in a fictional story however, and would argue that story immersion is not the best in SWTOR. I feel it is at more of a "good enough" stage at the moment.

  13. Degrin, I don't actually think that it's wrong for e.g. the shuttle to manage to cross over to the imperial ship. I would just like to have some of the charatcers mention that there is a danger of being shot down attached to this.

    A good story immerses you by presenting credible actors. For the actors to be credible they need to allow you to see their emotions. If the actors simply ignore risks, I may be able to come up with an explanation why everything went well in the end. But the actors aren't credible if they don't worry.

    This isn't so much a plot-hole problem as a story-telling one. Characters in SW:TOR seem to be made of wood. They don't really seem to be emotional, sensible beings.

    It's like summarizing Lord of the Rings on three pages. It's not a problem to do, but the story is more enjoyable if we are told what people think and what they worry about - and not just what they end up doing.

  14. I suppose another part of this is also gameplay considerations. Different people play the game for different reasons. If the story portion were too long and detailed I could see it boring or even annoying many players. In order to strike a balance its possible/probable they glossed over some of the story and character development for the sake of time. With that in mind, I really like that they are changing this in D3, where they tell you the story while you are playing. This way you get the best of both worlds.

  15. Since everybody seems to disagree for some reason, I'll just post that I agree completely with Nils's Esseles assessment.

    This story -- as well as many other 'stories' in SWTOR -- doesn't make any sense.

    I mentioned it before, and I see Nils mentioning it here, it would have probably been much better if they stripped off all the choices and just told the story.

  16. @Solf

    If they stripped all the choice out of it, it wouldn't be a very good Bioware game now would it?

    But to be honest, the Esseles (and the Black Talon for that matter) do stretch the credulity of the game a bit. Who's ever seen a space battle that takes that long to start? And what's up with the bridge area? Is it supposed to be as huge a warehouse or did the cruise just have that much extra space ...

    All in all, the gripes I have are far outweighed by the excellent experience I'm having in the game, so hey. You can't win 'em all.

  17. @Targeter -- if they have stripped all the choice out of it, it might have been better game period (Bioware or not is irrelevant). Note *might*. I don't pretend to know all the answers. Them giving players a choice simply highlights the nonsense nature of their stories. They really could do with less attention drawn.

  18. > There, the second boss, Ironfist, tells us all kind
    > of crap that is supposed to make us feel good and heroic
    > ("I thought your are more").

    Isn't that better then the WoW approach where each and every boss tells you how he's going to rip you to shreds after your small party has eradicated all of his guards?

  19. Just a little thing.

    I leveled to lv10 last night. And it turns out that the choices you have are Bioware choices, not light side/dark side choices. I am stuck with a 700 light, and 200 dark points due to BW's choices, not choices based on the Star Wars Universe... ouch.

    So you are really playing on BW's choices ... which is not always correct.

  20. Nils, can you name me just one game that didn't have these types of issues? Even a classic like Planescape Torment had wierd plots and twists so it could be a game.

    In fact most books have these same types of issues. I can point out a number of issues even with a classic trilogy like the LOTR or Asimov's Foundation trilogy.

    My point is that books, games, movies all have issues with them. None are perfect. We can either nitpick our way through them or suspend some of our belief and go the the entertainment and enjoyment.