Wrath no more

23 November 2010 § 3 Comments

The Shattering is happening as we speak, so it is time to say goodbye to the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. It may also be time to look back and reflect on different aspects of this expansion – both good and bad.

The levelling experience

I think Blizzard did a good job about the levelling experience. Most of the zones looked gorgeous, with some good stories and some decent foreshadowing of instances/events to come. I liked meeting King Ymiron in Howling Fjord, before facing him in Utgarde Pinnacle, and I wish this kind of foreshadowing was used more often. I really loved the Taunka storyline on Horde, as well as the Matthew Lehner story in Icecrown. If anything, I wish there was a tigher interaction between the storylines used in questing and the dungeons/raid instances of the expansion: why didn’t we do more with the whole story about the Lich King getting rid of his heart?

In a similar vein, let’s not have an Obsidian Sanctum debacle again: that instance had no story link with ANYTHING else in the game, it was just sort of there. I had to have a friend dig out the story behind the instance online, because there is literally nothing in the game to let us know what is it supposed to represent. In a similar vein, I was a bit disappointed with the whole Nexus War story: it features through a good part of Borean Tundra and Dragonblight, but then fizzles out completely in the later zones, and the fact that Malygos was a first-tier boss meant that we “solved it” way too early. Ulduar, awesome as it was, could have used some tighter link to the Scourge: I understand Yogg Saron has been helping with Arthas corruption, but in many ways that actually cheapens the Lich King story, which is more dramatic precisely because it is a story of a Prince choosing to do all those horrible things as a way to save his land. This is a minor gripe though, as Ulduar did have a good storyline throughout Storm Peaks, and I probably could just handle it being just a synchronicity issue, with a new menace emerging while we prepare to deal with Arthas.

We all know that Blizzard lamented that Illidan was a bit of an invisible enemy in Burning Crusade, as non-raiders hardly ever met him. With Arthas, I think they swung the pendulum the other way a bit too much, turning him too much into a 007 villain, never missing an opportunity to explain his plans in details only to let the heroes go so that they could eventually come back and get him. I hope with Deathwing they find a happier middle ground, maybe having major lore figures intercede and save adventurers, porting them to safety and similar, instead of having the boss just walk off the scene of the confrontation.

The gearing-up experience

The combination of badge gear, LFG tool, and higher-level 5-man dungeons meant that gearing was much easier and pleasurable than in either BC or Vanilla. I remember running alts through Karazhan right until the very end of the expansion, while thankfully we were spared running Naxx in the same way. The simplification of the badge system was probably needed, and sounds appropriate. I am a bit scared about what will happen with the LFG tool if instances and heroics are going to require more coordination: in many ways, I think LFG works well because you need no interaction with your group members. Let’s just say that I’ll try my damnedest to level and learn the dungeons with friends, rather than with the anonymous people who are likely to start a blame war (and a group quit) at the first wipe.

I really really like the idea of having some 5-man dungeons being designed for more geared playes, and I hope that they keep that design. One thing though: please do not have once again loot tables as long as the ICC 5-man ones, or at least try to make drop itemisation a bit more even. There were some slots that just required one boss, and one boss only, unless you had access to raid loot (not the case for many alts): caster shield, tank shield and caster offhand are all cases in point here. And please, keep in mind we have TWO trinket slots, so we need to have two decent trinkets per spec.

All in all, Wrath actually managed to reduce the gear gap considerably: right now, I think most 80 characters are in 245/251 gear, while most raiders would be in 264/277, a gap of only 1-2 tiers, which is completely acceptable.

The raiding experience

In raiding, the record is a bit mixed. There is no question to me that the high point of the raiding in this expansion was Ulduar. Bosses were fun, they progressed nicely from the easier Siege ones, to the Keepers, to Vezax and Yogg, and finally Algalon. There were also a nice number of side bosses which you could skip while progressing, and just do on off-nights or as filler. The fight were well thought out, with some nice mechanics, and they were very very different from each other and from what we had seen before. The art was absolutely fantastic, and thus the atmosphere was great.

I want to mention especially the in-game triggers of hard modes, which were, in my mind, the best possible way to have heroics. In-game triggers sometimes were actually a check, because if you could not manage to trigger the hard mode, you were just not geared enough to handle it (XT, Thorim); sometimes they were fun (“What happens if I push this red but… oh…”); and sometimes were just more traditional ways (Yogg, Freya). Blizzard has stated that they did not like the fact that it basically required players to look on outside sites how to actually trigger them, but that’s easily solved: for example, NPCs at the start of the instance could have dialogue options about how to trigger the different hard modes. It certainly made a lot more game sense than toggling an interface button (which is convenient, but a bit of a last resort measure in my mind).

I think there is also no doubt that the low point was Trial of the Crusader. The biggest problem there was the multiplication of instances, so that 10 and 25-man raiders ended up facing Icehowl 4 times a week, which is a surefire recipe for burnout. The fights were not too bad (I personally enjoyed the val’kyrs, Anub’Arak and Faction Champs), and the absence of trash was definitely a plus. The single room though was a definite bummer, as well as the really punishing hard mode of no-wipes (oh the frustration when one of our raiders would die to Faction Champs…). The whole tier of raiding was a bit lackluster, imo: I kinda understand Tirion’s idea of selecting the best fighters to get into ICC, as you want to avoid giving a Lich any more fodder to resurrect, but surely in that case you would want to mix Alliance and Horde (which Tirion doesn’t even try to do), and the selection could be a bit more serious than jousting. It really feels like the developers got enamored with the vehicle mechanic a bit too much, and maybe had a longing for Arthurian stories – but they just felt completely out of place here.

Naxx was not bad, but way too easy and just rehashed to be really enjoyable. Malygos was actually an interesting fight, but proved that players really take a long time to figure out a new mechanic. Controlling the drakes was not hard, but try teaching that to all the people in your 25-man… Sarth was ok, and I liked the 3D version (especially when you could not zerg it, and had to control it), except for its total lack of anchoring to the rest of the world.

Icecrown Citadel was enjoyable, probably just second to Ulduar in terms of awesomeness. I had some issues with stories (if Saurfang and Tirion and Muradin interact at the beginning, why do we suddenly need to race each other to get to the Lich King? Feels a bit contrived to me), and a strong desire for a more gradual progression of the hard modes: the jump between Sindragosa/Putricide to Lich King is a bit too much, it would be nice to have a more gradual progression. I am definitely in favour of a REALLY HARD final boss to the expansion, though, so no complaints there.

All in all, though, this has probably been the most enjoyable of the expansions so far, so I hope Blizzard can keep it up. Who knows, two years from now I may be writing the wrap up to the Cataclysm expansion…

The success of a (raid) instance (part I) – or, why do so many people not like Coliseum?

3 September 2009 § 1 Comment

We killed Anub’Arak today – after only 2 attempts, which has been more or less the average for the whole Trial of the Crusader instance. So, final boss down, time for some considerations on the raid instance as a whole. Most everyone I know is complaining about how easy it is – but I think the situation is more complicated than that. In fact, all these whining about it made me think a bit about what makes a raid instance a success – and most importantly, a success for whom. This is a bit of a big argument, so I’ll break it into multiple posts.

I think I can identify three main causes of complaint about Coliseum. Let me see if I can examine them one by one.

The first and most apparent is that it’s “too easy”. Many groups one-shot the bosses as they are added weekly, and so after about 10 mins of excitement about the new fight, there’s nothing else to do. This is, however, only partly true. My own raid has (as I said) one- or two-shot all the bosses, and we certainly are no Ensidia. However, I also went in on various alts with other groups, and I think the fights are actually not as easy as they look. I think part of it is the gear requirements on tanks and healers (much less so on dps): even on normal, bosses hit quite hard, and there’s often some unavoidable raid damage. The raid damage is key, though: a good group manages to reduce that to a minimum, by spreading out, healing the Incinerate Flesh, cc’ing/locking down properly the various champions, avoiding the wrong-colour orbs, etc. However, as soon as the group is not on top of its game, this raid damage seems to grow exponentially and become fairly tough to deal with. The skills required to minimise this damage are probably second nature to a raid working on Ulduar hard modes – but it probably is not to a group whose main raiding experience is Naxx. Even my group, on alts (decently geared, but not the toons we would normally raid with) failed miserably, mostly because many of us didn’t have the automatic response to emergency situations, and thus as soon as stuff didn’t go perfectly well, it snowballed quickly to its (and our) bitter end.

So, maybe, it’s not so much that it’s easy, but that it forces everyone to face the same level of difficulty. In other words, the solution of forcing everyone to complete the instance before attempting hard modes may have backfired. ALL guilds from the world top to the average guild had to go four weeks doing regular bosses they would one or two shot, creating a sense of frustration because stuff was too easy. Compare this with Ulduar, where four weeks in some guilds were on Yogg-Saron (like we were), some were working on the keepers and some more were already fighting through the hard modes – or on Algalon, in the case of the very top guilds. Compare also to the gating Blizzard used for Sunwell, where actually GETTING to kill one boss before the next one was released was a challenge. I think Blizzard tried to stretch the release of this content, to avoid a repeat of the cycle of 2 weeks of mad activity and 4 months (or more) of farming. The result, however, has been that the top raids are still frustrated, so I’m not sure they really achieved anything with this gating.

In a different camp, we have the lore freaks, lamenting the lack of background of the new instance – and this is the second major complaint I hear. In its defence, Blizzard actually did give us some background – through the chatter of the various NPCs around the Argent Tournament Grounds. We have King Varian and Jaina, Thrall and Garrosh arriving at the ground, and we also have a short speech by Tirion explaining why the Tournament. Frankly, it makes sense that you would not want to send a big army against an enemy who can raise dead, but instead find the top champions and send them as small squads – it makes less sense that you choose champions by jousting, but that’s another story. I personally don’t like the option of NPCs chatting in a major area to give story clues: to me, it feels interesting the first time, deadly boring (and spammy on my log) any time after that. NPC background chat is great to establish mood (witness the ongoing complaint the Horde has about the difference between Stormwind and Orgrimmar), but as a tool to further story, it feels too much like watching a diorama in a museum. That said, at least this time we DO have an explanation for an instance, and it’s in the game (unlike, say, Sartharion, where a flimsy explanation was in the books, and no tie-in was made to the rest of the game to this day).

This leaves me with the third type of complaints – that it just doesn’t feel epic enough. In vanilla WoW, we fought an Elemental Lord and his lieutenants; a scheming black dragon who had infiltrated, corrupted and influenced the whole Alliance; her brother, who was intent on creating a new dragonflight to dominate the world; an Old God and his bugs; and the main lieutenant of the Lich King. In Burning Crusade, we had an imprisoned Pit Lord; a Gronn (admittedly, why did we kill Gruul?); the two lieutenants of Illidan and their minions; Archimonde (although really, we only had reason to fight Rage Winterchill, and only to do it once to get the key to Black Temple); Illidan and his lieutenants; Kil’jaeden and various Burning Legion figures (including a captive dragon, another pit lord, a captured Naaru and two eredar). In Wrath so far, we had the main lieutenant of the Lich King (again ;-P); a crazy Dragon Aspect; a black dragon creating a new dragonflight (again…); an Old God and his corrupted Titan jailors – and the Titan messenger trying to sterilise the world. If you look at it that way, even with a couple of raid instances not very well explained, it’s difficult to be excited because we’re fighting not one, but TWO Jormungars. The other bosses are not better: an eredar lord summoned by mistake by the comic relief; two lieutenants of the Lich King we never heard about  before; and a Nerubian King who a) we have beaten before at lvl 73; b) just happened to be burrowing beneath the Coliseum (and kudos to Tirion for not thinking about that…. /facepalm material, that). Last week the point was painfully obvious to us, as we went from fighting Algalon (constellations do his bidding, he creates big bangs), to fighting… the beasts of Northrend. I understand that it’s difficult to give players more and newer epic fights that up the ante from the tier before. However, I can understand the players when for the first time they are let down in this progression.

I think this is long enough for one post (I’m starting to see why the main tank in my raid thinks I’m verbose) – in part II I’ll switch gears and try to divine Blizzard’s perspective on Coliseum.

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