The nice thing about TOR is that you can run multiplayer content without setting foot in a Flashpoint or a raid (aka an Operation) by simply running a few Heroic missions**. Heroics take a lot less time than the average WoW Instance or TOR Flashpoint, so you can squeeze them fairly easily into any free time you have. In some respects the Heroic concept is similar to Scenarios in Mists, but whereas Scenarios went for more of an instance feel with mobs and bosses (initially at least) the TOR Heroics can span the entire gamut between the old WoW group quests to more standard instances. Certain Heroics, such as Fall of the Locust, have more of an Azjol-Nerub feel in their focus and speed, while others such as Destroy the Beacons is more a standard group quest.
Although Heroics provided me with some familiarity with multiplayer content in TOR, I still wasn't sure what to expect in a Flashpoint. A dungeon is a dungeon is a dungeon, right? Well, not really.
Well, that's not quite a fair assessment, since the tank and healer in a TOR Flashpoint are expected to pull their weight in DPS too, but their primary responsibilities lie with threat management and keeping their squadmates upright. And everyone --I do mean everyone-- is expected to provide CC as needed.
A case in point: I've been in instances where people have simply refused to CC something --even when asked-- as if they were personal affronts on their core abilities. Runs I'd prefer to forget in Magister's Terrace, Arcatraz, and Blackrock Depths come to mind. But in the TOR 4-man Heroics I've been in, that's never been a problem. In fact, the one time that someone tried to chain pull ala Drak Theron or Lost City of the Tol'vir, we wiped and the Jedi Guardian said "Okay, THAT was a stupid idea."
So. I had a pretty good idea what to expect, but I decided that the smartest move for me was to take an alt and queue up for a low end Flashpoint. My expectation was that the lower level flashpoints would have easier mechanics than the higher level ones. Just like you wouldn't want to throw a noob into the deep end of the pool and queue up Magister's Terrace at level, I didn't want to find out about all sorts of esoteric boss mechanics the hard way with my max level Gunslinger.
Therefore, I pulled out my Jedi Sentinel and queued up for a random. In short order I found myself on Athiss, being told to jump down the hole to the entry. (I found out on a later run that the hole had a sliceable elevator. Oh well.)
Athiss is the classic "send an expedition in to examine ruins, they run into trouble, and you have to rescue them" instance. This kind of defines Brann Bronzebeard's entire modus operandii, if you ask me. It's a part-outside part-inside Flashpoint, which does make it interesting. I've been wracking my brain on anything similar that I've run through, and about all I can come up with is something like Halls of Origination or Utgarde Keep, where the dungeon goes outside for a bit. The thing is, WoW's instances tend to be very narrow affairs, shuttling the party from one boss to the next, and Athiss' outdoors areas feel much more wide open. Maybe not as wide open as Old Hillsbrad, but still very broad. If you wanted to spend a lot of time you could clear it all, but that wasn't why we were there. Instead of the game imposing an artificial narrow scope, the party ourselves did by negotiating from point A to point B.
Inside, naturally, is a more traditional affair with anyone involved with instance running. There are a few trash mobs involved, and then a mini-boss or two, and then a boss. For the Republic faction, you're learning about the area as you go; I suspect an Imperial group would already have a good grasp of the background given that it was a Sith area to start with. The end boss fight has a few interesting mechanics --think of Ionar in Halls of Lightning and you get the idea-- but it does take a while to win the fight. The healer was certainly kept busy, and I'm glad that it wasn't my job.
Okay, enough basic review (as if you haven't seen this sort of thing around the net already). What did I think?
I liked the assortment of enemies to fight. They ran the gamut from Weak through Champion (Boss), and that disparity made DPS-ing down a mob harder than usual. The Weak enemies still pack a punch, and if you don't take care of them quickly their attacks can take out one of your group. Group dynamics are still the same as always: somebody focuses on the bigger bad while others perform clean-up duty.***
However, one thing that WoW does have that TOR doesn't is add-ons, and you really start to feel that lack in Flashpoints. Maybe it's because I've used add-ons as a crutch for so long, but in a Flashpoint you end up using a lot more buttons than while out questing or in your average Heroic, and I missed the UI add-ons that WoW has. You have to adjust to a standard UI, and that means making sure that you have your button priorities set up properly.****
Still, that's a minor quibble, and something I have to make a mental adjustment on.
On the whole, I liked the feel of the Flashpoint. What I saw in both Athiss and Mandalorian Raiders (the second Flashpoint that I ran, this time as a DPS Commando) was a way to use voice and sound that Blizz has yet to implement in WoW. Sure, WoW has the occasional voiceover/intro scene/cutscene, but it also has the standard aggro - PC death - different phase - boss death type of commentary. Anything else tends to get put in the scrolling text. Using voiceovers from a boss (or someone else) while running the Flashpoint provides flavor that you don't see in WoW, especially when the voiceovers are from people that you don't encounter for a long while. Being taunted (via audio) every step of the way through Mandalorian Raiders by the leader of Clan Varad has a completely different feel for it than "Prince Taladram Yells: Who trespasses in the Old Kingdom?" Imagining what a WoW instance would look like if the Svala Sorrowgrave scene in Utgarde Pinnacle were throughout an entire instance is what Bioware was shooting for.
However, I can see where a large number of WoW players wouldn't give a damn about flavor or text or voice at all; "see it and kill it" is their mantra, and if they run the same Flashpoint a dozen times, they don't want to have to "see all this crap again", as one WoW player I know put it. "I play this to kill things and to down raid bosses, I don't play this to think."*****
The player who is predisposed to like a story driven game like TOR will like their approach to instances; for other people it is more of a hit-and-miss proposition. I can see where the lack of add-ons will drive some people nuts, and they flee to the safety of WoW (or Rift) and its numerous add-ons. But I'll be honest in that once I got used to having to prioritize differently, it wasn't so bad to run without add-ons. You stop worrying about damage meters and trying to fine tune your threat management; you just roll with it and do what is best for the group.
And for the record, my old Core Duo processor machine held up pretty well throughout the Flashpoints, thank-you-very-much. Sure, it would have been nice for the graphics to draw a bit quicker at the intro, but I survived.
*Or Age of Conan's 2:2:2. Yes, AoC's instances are designed for two tanks, two heals, and two DPS. The mobs hit pretty hard in AoC's instances, just like their elites out in the game world.
**For the uninitiated, Heroic missions (Heroics for short) are the equivalent of extended group quests in WoW. They are entirely optional, can be run for badges as dailies, and are a great way to essentially perform mini group content without sacrificing too much time. Since they're not part of the main story line, you don't feel required to run them, unlike those group quests in Age of Conan. Also, since the groups are entirely player built you're not stuck with a complete trinity of tank-DPS-healer; I've been in heroics that had three DPS and a healer, or one tank and three healers. If you remember pulling an impromptu group together to try to kill Knucklerot and Luzran in the Ghostlands, then you get the idea of how putting together a Heroic operates. So, if you're in TOR and you see someone ask in Gen Chat about running Heroics, they're not talking about Heroic level dungeons like you would in WoW.
***Just like in Alterac Valley there are some people who actually stay and defend the towers while everybody else rushes off to attack Vann or Drek.
****In PvP, that means everybody is on the same UI and add-on footing, which is always a good thing.
*****This sort of person is also most likely to start yelling "I'm bored!" after blitzkrieging through the content in Mists, but I digress.