Between going back to Ulduar for some achievements with my guildies, having this song stuck in my head and finding this article on WoW.com, I couldn't help but think about my own experiences with this raid instance. Many of the commenters on the WoW.com article called it Wrath's best raid, some even the best raid ever. While trying to decide whether I agreed or disagreed with that, I realised that I have quite a love/hate relationship with Ulduar.
To start with explaining the "hate" part, I'm really not that into the whole titan stuff. Everyone's got bits and pieces of lore that they like more than others, and for me the titans are one of those pieces that I don't particularly care about. I blame it on early trauma induced by endless Uldaman runs. To be fair, WOTLK managed to get me a little more interested in the subject than I was before, but still not massively.
Secondly, I experienced Ulduar as extremely dull from a visual point of view. After reading that sentence you're probably feeling a bit incredulous - Ulduar, of all places, looking dull? Let me explain: When I went back to Ulduar last Sunday, seeing it from my new PC for the first time, I was absolutely amazed when I first entered the central chamber and saw all that glass swirling up into the sky. It was beautiful. The problem is that while Ulduar was actually progression content and we were going there three times a week, I was still sitting behind my rickety old PC back in Austria that struggled to give me five frames per second during a twenty-five-man raid even with all the graphic settings turned down. Now, obviously that made every instance less interesting to look at than it could have been, but Ulduar was particularly bad because of its sheer size, which resulted in the limited viewing distance not even showing me the walls a lot of the time, so I was endlessly wandering through clouds of grey fog, which is not the most interesting way of spending a Sunday night. Even Trial of the Crusader was more fun to look at under those conditions, because at least I could make out the NPCs on the stands there.
From a mechanical point of view, Ulduar was also the instance that really introduced the idea that the best way to make a fight hard for the healers was to have lots and lots of unavoidable raid damage. Naxxramas had that on Sapphiron, but that was only one fight. In Ulduar there were Ignis, Deconstructor, Kologarn and many more, with Hodir remaining many a healer's worst nightmare for months, and that's without even getting started on any hard modes. I already wrote a post about why I don't like the "crazy damage everywhere" mechanic, so I can't help being grumpy with Ulduar for starting this trend.
I also didn't really like the whole hard mode/achievement model. I explained my stance on this a bit at the end of this post: Zul'Aman had created very different expectations of what "hard mode" meant to me, and compared to the good old bear run everything that Ulduar had to offer in that regard just felt clumsy in comparison. For the most part "hard mode" didn't so much mean playing better as it meant being "intentionally stupid" and activating avoidable mechanics that would make the fight more difficult by hindering you. Not to mention the whole problem of some early hard modes being easier than the final bosses, which inevitably led to all kinds of arguments about what "progression" should focus on. It just felt like a major pain in the arse to be honest.
That said, I can understand why many people look back on the Ulduar hard modes with a certain fondness, mainly because everything that came afterwards was simply so much worse. Heroic TotC was nothing but an exercise in tedium and frustration. Heroic ICC has been a step up from that but still strikes me as a bit of a mixed bag, as the differences between the two modes, at least mechanics-wise, are still pretty minor on most fights. And heroic gunship is just a joke. If you can't think of a good "hard mode", does there have to be one? Ulduar didn't try to force it on absolutely every boss and that actually worked better - why not favour quality over quantity?
I still think that hard modes are a poor excuse for extra content, but Blizzard clearly considers the concept a success and it looks like it's here to stay. And well, when my choice is between just not raiding anything new at all after finishing all the normal modes and having at least a little bit of variety by trying heroic difficulty, I'll go with the latter. I can still wish for more varied and interesting hard mode fights though, and Ulduar was actually better at that than any of its successors.
Ulduar generally had a pretty interesting variety of fights, with Yogg-Saron still being my favourite WOTLK raid boss. The Lich King's not bad either, but from a healer's point of view that fight is too unforgiving and too scripted. Big speech at the start, big speech at the end, the rest of the time you try to stab Arthas in the kneecaps while also doing some running around and dealing with adds. Yogg was no pushover either, but missing one global cooldown wouldn't immediately wipe the raid, and he gave me a much bigger sense of excitement - dodging clouds and add spawns as we tried to bring down the mysterious Sara, plunging into the brain of the old god as he revealed himself, trying to fight off the deadly tentacles outside until he was finally vulnerable enough to be killed - if you could make it without being overwhelmed by the reinforcements he called in.
Actually, I think Ulduar as a whole felt more like an adventure, more organic than any of the other Wrath raids. All the bosses seemed to be there for a reason, and the whole place just felt "right". Why of course, Freya would live in a lush little paradise where frost lotus grows naturally. And a great inventor like Mimiron wouldn't just be content to sit in a little room, he had to build his own considerably-sized lab connected to the main complex by a train! Also, anyone remember when Sara would occasionally emit ear-splitting cries for help? (I don't know if she still does it.) I remember the first time she did that to us it made the whole raid jump, it was just that sudden and unexpected. But what's a good dungeon without surprises?
All in all I would agree with rating Ulduar as WOTLK's best raid. ICC is pretty good too, but the bosses seem a bit more random to me and as I said the hard modes are quite a mixed bag. I think everyone was just absolutely thrilled by it because the previous raid instance being TotC had really lowered everyone's expectations. (You know something's out of whack when you first enter a new instance and everyone goes "hurrah, there's trash" and means it.)
All in all I still liked Zul'Aman and Karazhan better though.
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