Telling the Tale: Reflecting on Wrath

Running from the Robot
Eat your heart out, Michael Bay.

In case you didn’t know, Loremaster is the end goal for every max level toon I’ve ever had.  To date, I have three toons with the uber-nerd-tasti-fied title, and each time is more enjoyable than the last.  Considering I did it the first time Pre-Cata before there were add ons to tell you what quests you’ve missed, ‘more enjoyable’ is easy to accomplish.  This last trip around the wide world of Azeroth, I decided to finish with Northrend.  I have fond memories of this expansion.  If you asked me a month ago why, I probably would have simply chuckled and said it was pointless nostalgia.  But it isn’t.  There is something different in the cold winds of Northrend.  Something that has helped me close in on the very issue with Cataclysm that has been banging around in the back of my head since I first got to 85.

Wrath of the Lich King excelled in one magnificent thing above all others in my book.  My book of course being the one that says a good story trounces over balance issues, bad design, and buggy gameplay.  I’ve been known the overlook some nasty problems with games in my day for the sake of story.  In this age of “We’ll release the game and patch it later”, it has proven to be a necessary ability.  I’m willing to work around the Silverite Mine bug in Dragon Age that deletes your inventory because I want to see what happens.  I don’t care if every cave in Dragon Age 2 is identical because I’m not there to explore caves, I’m there for the plot… and Merrill.  You get my point.  And if there was one thing that I will defend Wrath of the Lich King it was its story.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Cataclysm’s storylines.  Becoming the Herald of the Ancients and ushering in their return to save the World Tree from the forces of Ragnaros and Twilight’s Hammer.  Aiding the Earthen Ring in repairing the World Pillar and confronting all the various factions that operate in the Plane of Earth.  Though I must say helping throw a dwarven wedding beats out enlisting the Dragonmaw into the Horde.  Cataclysm had well told storylines.  The problem was they really didn’t have anything to do with each other.  Nothing that happens in Hyjal has any significance to the events in Uldum.  No one in the Twilight Highlands seems to care about what occurred in the depths of Vash’jir.  In fact, the only consistent threads through the five zones are strictly thematic in nature: the elements, the end of the world, etc.  That has been my biggest issue in Cataclysm, that the major plot seems thematic instead of narrative.  By which I mean there is no ‘overarching story’ to the expansion, just an ‘overarching theme’.  It’s like the Final Fantasy series.  Each game has its own plot, and each game tends to touch on the same general themes, but aside from the rare occasion (X & X-2, Tactics & XII), there is nothing story-wise connecting the games.

In Wrath of the Lich King however, the story was structured so that some plot threads resolved in the zone, and others built throughout the continent.  For instance, Yogg-Saron is first hinted at in the gorge in the Howling Fjords, it is not given a name until the Grizzly Hills, we are given glimpses of its influence and power in Storm Peaks and Icecrown, and we finally face off with the beast in the Ulduar raid.  Same with Loken and his meddling behind the war behind the giants and the iron dwarves.  There are many more: The development of the New Plague, the plight of the Taunka, the Nexus War, discovering the ancestry of the Gnomes,and  the various misadventures of the Brothers Bronzebeard.  These are on top of the normal zone specific plot lines that are going on.

Everything seems so connected in Northrend.  The same spirit has been extended to many plotlines in the revised 1-60 experience as well (In Ashenvale, you help design and build the bomb you drop on the druids in Stonetalon).  But not in the 80-85 part of Cataclysm.  The strongest narrative tie is probably that the Molten Front serves as a ‘sequel’ to what happened in Hyjal, but that is more or less the same zone.  Burning Crusade had a similar issue, but even then there were a small handful of plotlines that would pop up here and there, like Pathaleon the Calculator’s experiments for his master, the Blood Elf dependence on finding a new power source, etc. But in the end, because of this strong narrative thread, Northrend is much more enjoyable for me to level through than Burning Crusade and Cataclysm.

In summary: Yes, thus far Wrath was my favorite expansion.  No, it didn’t have anything to do with anything being “easy mode”. Yes, Merrill is adorable. No, I am not wearing lederhosen for Brewfest.

Who Are Heroics For?

WARNING: This Post May Contain What Some People Might Consider SPOILERS for Cataclysm.  Mostly this is a discussion of game design, but there are a few faction names,  location names, and some of the current mechanics from the expansion mentioned here. Again, I’m not in the Beta, there’s nothing exactly ground breaking-ly new or shocking, but if you consider a few proper nouns without a lot of context to still be spoiler-ish, you have been warned.

So their been a bit of a buzz as of late revolving around the Heroic Dungeons in Cataclysm.  From what I can piece together from the various bits of Cataclysm news I actually look at (I try hard to avoid spoilers) it seems that the heroic dungeons are now available for testing in the beta and apparently they are quite hard.  Now of course, this is still the beta and that difficulty can be whittled away through the course of continous testing or even after launch via patches and what not (Helloooo Oculus), and it may stay just as hard or even increase in difficulty as more instances get added to the game in later patches.

The discussion has mostly been centered around the idea of whether ‘to nerf or not to nerf’ the heroic dungeons.  Some people really want to see us return to the days of the Burning Crusade in terms of Heroics, a focus on strategic pulls, crowd control, and those who don’t know what to do will have a hard time faking it. Others enjoy the model adopted by Wrath of the Lich King, in which heroics were an easy means to get some low level epics and badges to purchase even better epics.  Most conversations I’ve seen debating this make casual use of labels such as “casual” (ie “Casuals killed heroics”) or “hardcore” (ie “Heroics should be for the Hardcore players”) and excessive use of the terms “noob” and “bads” (which has apparently has become a noun right under my nose.  Hooray for an ever evolving language!  …and thank goodness for Urban Dictionary.)

Most of the time there is, in my opinion, a major component of the heroics discussion goes unmentioned.  Wait. Stop.  Don’t finish those eye rolls. I am NOT going to say that heroics were hard back at the beginning of WotLK.  In fact, you’ll never find me argue that the heroic dungeons of WotLK were very easy compared to their Burning Crusade cousins.  But note how I say cousins and not incarnations.  Because that’s what we need to be looking at, as well as how we look at the Heroics of Cataclysm.  These ‘variants’ of Heroics, in my eyes, are not an evolution of content but rather more like different flavors of ice cream.  Vanilla and chocolate are worlds apart, but are both technically ice creams.  The difference between these ‘flavors’ of heroics is not one of ‘difficulty’ but of purpose.  Allow me to look at the “history” (for lack of a better word) of Heroics in depth:

The Burning Crusade Design: Off Time for the Raiders

Way way waaay back in the savage age that was 2007, WoW’s first expansion – The Burning Crusade – was delivered unto a player base that was raised on grinds, super coordinated fights, massive dungeon crawls, and where only the best of the best would find themselves at the gates of raiding.  Burning Crusade, to say the least, did a fair job of cracking that world view into many little pieces that you’d have a hard time sweeping up and then would occasionally step on as you stumbled through the kitchen in the dark to drink milk from the carton even though your not supposed to and cause you to yell in pain, drop the milk, and then kick the cat because it sits there mocking you with its low light vision…  what was I talking about?  Oh yea, Burning Crusade.

Burning Crusade introduced smaller raids, shorter dungeons, and a token system that made getting your tier equipment much more bearable than taking it in the unmentionables from the RNG machine (I’ve run Molten Core dozens of times since starting to play, never seen Garr drop my warlock horns ONCE.  Thank the spirits for reskinned models.) This too was considered “catering to the casuals and the bads” at the time and was a sure sign that the game was dead (Spoiler: it didn’t die) but the one thing the game brought that was definitely not for the ‘casuals’ was the introduction of Heroic Dungeons.

Heroic Dungeons brought with them a massive leap in difficulty and access to epics outside of crafting and raiding. It also was the only way to get epic gems until Tier 6 was introduced.  But with the difficulty brought with it a hefty cost to enter.  The generalization usually given was that you had to raid to get the gear to do the heroics.  That idea is the key of figuring what Heroics were back in Burning Crusade.  They offered Badges of Justice to get raid level gear, they offered a variety of epics that could fit in those few slots you didn’t have the DKP or good enough rolls to score raid gear for yet (because as  D&D player, I understand the subtle art that is ‘getting better at rolling dice’…   I’m not lying…  nope…), and they dropped epic gems you could place in that slightly more permanent epic gear.

Heroic Dungeons were something for raiders to do when they weren’t raiding. Plain and simple.  It had a shorter lockout, it gave rewards that helped you out as a raider and it was more or less tuned to assume that you had some raiding experience.  It wasn’t designed to ‘prepare’ you for anything.  The entry costs for Lower Karazhan (that’s everything up to Curator in case you’ve never heard that term, which is likely because I’ve never heard it before and probably just made it up) could roughly be achieved by getting top end blues from normal dungeons, the better quest rewards from the long chains in Netherstorm and Shadowmoon, and crafted epics.

The Wrath of the Lich King Design: The Ladder to Raiding

Wrath brought a lot of changes to the game again (now beginning to establish the pattern of relearning the game every expansion).  Raids could be done as 10 man or 25 man (catering to casuals), Tier 6 was useful beyond the first quest rewards of Northrend (game is too easy lolz), that the game was dead (Spoiler: still didn’t die), and the biggest change, the one that has haunted WotLK through it’s entire life span was the purpose of heroics had changed.  Most people chopped this up to the previously mentioned ‘game is too easy’ and ‘catering to the casuals’ and that the once mighty heroics were nerfed to this.  But they weren’t nerfed.  Not in the least.  The concept was repurposed.  Kinda like building a target dummy so you can destroy it for easy fused wiring.  Heroic Dungeons were no longer a side activity for the raiders, it was a part of the progression.

I’m often shocked (shocked I say) at how many times this is overlooked by people who complained about the heroics in the current expansion.  I thought it was fairly obvious from the get go.  You get to 80 and do normal dungeons (Stage 1), then once you are geared to the point of doing heroics, you did those to start cobbling together your epics for raiding and your badges (Stage 2) and then your set to go off to the tier 7 raids and start reaping your rewards (Stage 3+).  Wait! Don’t start with the eye rolling again! I know just what your thinking.  Then why would they start giving frosty badges for running them if they were never designed to run once you were at Stage 3 or beyond?  Well, simple, there will still people at stage 2 waiting to get their stuff but there just wasn’t enough people to cobble together enough to run them.  So you had to be given treats to go back and help the stage 2 people in order to prevent the gear gap from solidifying and keep the content flowing.

This plan ultimately I think backfired.  While yes, those at Stage 2 were eventually able to graduate to stage 3 either by drops or by badges (the triumph badge change went a long way here.  The purpose of letting everyone get a chance to at least go into Icecrown Citadel was pretty obvious here I think, so I’m not going to get into it) but it created resentment of the stage 1-2 people by the stage 4-5 people.  They higher ups just wanted frosties, didn’t care about the stage 2 people, and saw them as an obstacle to their frosties.  Resentment leads to hate and hate leads some Yoda quote, yadda yadda yadda.  To be honest, if they had the Dungeon Finder ready to go at the beginning of WotLK instead of the end, I think the whole expansion may have played out much differently (Same thing with the Hardmode rewards, etc) but then again hindsight is always 20/20, right?

The Cataclysm Design: The Mystery On The Horizon

So what will Cataclysm bring in terms of heroics?  Well, the Developers have stated their intent to go back to a “Burning Crusade” style set up.  Not surprising considering the backlash from the ‘Progression Ladder’ style that Wrath gave us.  The question is how far will the pendulum swing in that direction?  Will DPS Warriors become moot once more without a solid form of crowd control?  Will mages and rogues be only ones not to kicked in random?  I doubt it.  Blizzard is too good about learning their lessons to do that again.  I think the real thing to look at with this news is that Heroics are once again going to be tuned for off-the-clock raiders and those of comparable gear level.  Ghostcrawler has made mention that he’d like level 85’s to once more have to turn to high level quest drops and crafted items to start to assemble a raiding set, not just Heroics.

As long as this thought process follows through and normal dungeon drops, quest items and crafted gear can actually get you prepped enough to enter the lowest tier of raids, and heroics don’t start taking on the trappings of the raid markings and CC-or-Wipe filled memories like Heroic Shattered Halls or Heroic Magister’s Terrace, I think Cataclysm could prove to be quite the rewarding experience.  I’m not without my worries though.  Namely in terms of reputation factions (what can I say, I’m a completionist and I like my bars to be full dangit), the tabards currently seem to only reward rep for heroic dungeon runs, and my limited gazings into Cataclysm haven’t revealed any confirmation of daily questions to increase rep like we had in WotLK (Okay, I know Tol Barad has some, but that’s the Isle of Quel’danas aspect of its design, what about the Earthern Ring?).  But these are minor things all in all, and for the most part, mechanically at least, I’m very much looking forward to Cataclysm, even if it means having to relearn everything (Wait… hunters stand behind their pets and shoot?!  WTF!?)

Villainy 101 (with Arthas & Friends)

Back before Wrath of the Lich King had even hit store shelves, Blizzard made a lot of talk about how it wanted to correct certain mistakes from The Burning Crusade.  Blizzard, the ever evolving, was learning! This was something I’ve always admired in their dedication to the magnum opus of a MMO.  Granted, not everyone enjoys every single change (Insert: Catering to the casuals! DKs are OP!) but the fact that they try is more than some companies can say (I’m still waiting for my Ultimate Doom on Xbox 360 to get patched to NOT crash at the end of Episode 2.) but one of their most boastful changes to WotLK from BC was fixing the issue with Illidan (who I’ll probably get around to talking about at some point) and make sure that Arthas is an upfront villain from the get-go.  That Arthas would be a constant presence as we went through Northrend.  However, at some point during this Arthas became a mustache-twirling evil-overlord-list-breaking villain that Snively Whiplash would frown at.

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