Late last night I randomly got invited to a Zul'Aman pug. I decided to go along with my druid since she still had Hex Lord? Hah! in her quest log (I'm notoriously bad at abandoning old quests). We breezed through the place in about twenty minutes and I felt mildly heartbroken. I loved this instance so much back at level seventy; seeing everything getting drowned in aoe and bosses dying before they even had time to execute their signature moves made me sad. I have to admit that when our main tank stupidly rushed ahead, got locked in Halazzi's room with only two dps and died, I felt a strange kind of satisfaction. At least that old lynx's claws were still somewhat sharp.
I remember once reading a throwaway line on another blog that called Zul'Aman the perfect raid, and while I unfortunately can't remember who said that I can't help but agree. I'll admit that I'm biased since I generally love all instances with trolls in them and because I had some of my best raiding moments ever in there, but I think even if I ignored those factors I'd still have to say that it's a damn good raid.
It was pretty short - my "bear group" cleared the whole place in about an hour even before the big 3.0 nerf - but it offered such a nice variety of different and challenging encounters that it always felt worth your time anyway. There was a reasonable amount of trash as well, and every single pull was meaningful and a challenge of its own.
First you had Nalorakk, the priest of the bear god - he was the "gear check boss" since both he and his trash mostly just hit hard. If I think back to how many times we wiped on the last pull leading up to him, back when we first entered the instance... yikes.
Then there was Akil'zon, the eagle or "movement boss". The trash leading up to him only consisted of a gauntlet where mobs would continue to come at you from both back and front, and the challenge was to move forwards as fast as you could without losing control of all the adds. The boss himself was also all about correct positioning and finding the safe spot whenever he cast his electrical storm.
Jan'alai, the dragonhawk, was the "control boss", both in terms of trash and the actual boss encounter. Could you lock down the scouts to prevent them from repeatedly calling for reinforcements? Could you control the flame casters so they wouldn't aoe your raid to death with their hasted fireball volleys? On the boss himself you had to plan carefully when and what to dps, since killing things too quickly could be just as deadly as killing them too slowly. Keeping the mass of dragonhawk hatchlings under control was challenging as well, back in a time where aoe tanking abilities were rare.
Halazzi's trash mostly consisted of packs of lynxes that appeared out of nowhere - who doesn't like surprises? The boss himself wasn't about tons of adds though, more about quick target switching: The off-tank had to be fast with picking up the lynx spirit before it could run off and maul the clothies, and the dps had to be focused on taking down the corrupted lightning totems whenever they were dropped. Ah, the fond memories I have of fail dps who couldn't push a targetting macro unless you shouted at them in a raid warning every single time...
And then you had the final bosses of course, with Hex Lord Malacrass blocking the way to Zul'jin. I remember the first thing I heard about him was that he was "like Moroes" with his four adds and what not. Hah! Of course the adds were significant, but the real challenge was the way Malacrass stole the abilities of random players in your party and used them against you. Nothing like a paladin's consecration eating away at the health of your melee dps or a priest's mind control suddenly affecting your healer. And all this while you were racing against time and massive aoe shadow damage.
Zul'jin himself was kind of a combination of the first four bosses rolled into one and the addition of some new abilities... I think that should say enough really. An epic ending for an epic instance.
Zul'Aman was also - as far as I'm aware anyway - the first raid with a "hard mode". I remember at the time I was looking forward to Blizzard implementing more of them; it's too bad they changed the concept so much since then, because I loved the Zul'Aman timed chests but dislike most of WOTLK's hard mode encounters.
The thing with the Zul'Aman chests was that they were never an either-or decision. It wasn't: Shall we just kill this the normal way or wipe lots in hopes of getting an achievement? You did the "hard mode" while doing the normal mode. It wasn't about weird gimmicks like not killing adds or generally not doing the sensible thing either, you were simply rewarded for playing well, for killing things fast and without wiping.
In addition the chest rewards were staggered and cumulative. It was enough to just know how to kill the bear boss to get the first chest. If you could pull off downing both Nalorakk and Akil'zon without too many wipes two chests were yours. Three was where it started to get tough as you didn't get much extra time from then on, but getting three chests was still a nice consolation prize if you couldn't quite make it to the warbear mount.
Now compare this to something like Freya and her hard mode in Ulduar: There are four different difficulties: normal; one, two and three elders. Higher difficulty requires you to intentionally make things harder for yourself by not killing the elders even though it would be the sensible thing to do. Also, you have to choose which mode to go for as you can only do one at a time. The loot for three of them is identical except for an extra emblem or something (I didn't keep track to be honest); only the hardest difficulty gives extra rewards. In short, it's highly annoying and unrewarding. So... why did anyone think that this would be an improvement over what we had before?
I miss you, Zul'Aman, I really do.