25/10/2014

New Character Models

A friend pointed out to me that Blizzard was offering seven free days of playtime for lapsed players right now, and even though I hadn't received any kind of notification about it, the promotion was sitting in my Battle.net account as well. I wasn't willing to re-sub purely to check out the new character models, but for free? Sure, let me see how my "old friends" are faring in this brave new world of higher polygon counts.

First off, let me say that the new WoD loading screen instantly made me feel a pang of nostalgia, considering how similar it looks to the BC loading screen I grew up with (just with a different colour swirly in the middle.)

First I checked on my old main and her brethren, the female trolls. It seems to me that they look a little edgier and grumpier than before, but this feels fitting considering that they are, well... trolls. Overall they seem to have fared well in regards to the revamp.

Sadly my second favourite Horde race, the female tauren, have not been so lucky. Their new models are a pretty big departure from what they used to look like. In fact I would say that the dog-like noses they were given cause them to not even look like cows anymore. In a race based on minotaurs I consider that a pretty big failure. I physically started when I took my hunter's (on the left) helmet off and saw her new face. It's sad because this problem was very evident from the very first preview Blizzard gave of these models and people gave plenty of good feedback on how the worst issues could be fixed. Sadly Blizzard chose to ignore it.

I've seen some complaints about the updated models for the Forsaken, but personally I was pleasantly surprised by them. My own undead ladies at least looked pretty close to their original versions - just a little more badass than before maybe, but that's hardly a bad thing.

In all my years of playing WoW I never made an orc because I don't like their pug faces, but I did make a male troll once. His model, too, looks like a substantial upgrade that's very true to the original. I like how the tusks feel a lot more substantial now.

On Alliance side, I logged into the very first character I ever created, a human paladin, and miscellaneous other human ladies. They looked pretty good, though like the female trolls I feel that they look a little... edgier, older now. I suspect that this is a side effect of the more detailed textures, which took away that soft smoothness that many of the faces used to have. Their facial expressions also seem a bit odd, like someone spent a lot of time tugging at the mouths and eyebrows in an attempt to recreate the facial expressions of the original models, but the results look a bit unnatural. Still, overall I feel that this is a good update that I could get used to.

My old Alliance main and her brethren, the night elves, seem to have come out of this update pretty well too. My priest (on the left) felt like an extremely faithful update. My druid (on the right) looked a little off - and not just because I caught her mid-blink - but it seemed to me that her hair had lost its bounce and her mouth had shrunk. I reckon that's something that could be ameliorated with a visit to the barber shop though.

My Draenei ladies, probably my favourite Alliance race these days, were updated in such a subtle fashion that I hardly even noticed much of a change on most of them. That's not a complaint though.

The race that really seems to have got the short end of the stick on Alliance side are the female dwarves. This was somewhat surprising to me, as I thought that the previews for these looked pretty decent. They are not nearly as horribly off as the female tauren, but all the faces have extremely wide noses and heavily lidded eyes now, which definitely wasn't the case before, and it makes them look kind of old and tired. I went to the barber shop to check if there were any options that didn't have this problem, but they all had the same issue.

Speaking of the barber shop, I never noticed that they have all these wigs on male goblin heads - that made me smile.

I was going to say that I never played a gnome either, but then I remembered that I rolled one for a blogger project back in the day. I don't have much of a connection to her, but I don't recall her looking quite so deranged and murderous before. Those eyes...

I also have two token male characters on Alliance side. Wilson the human warlock seems to have survived the changes pretty well, though the eyebrows of this face make him look angrier than before.

Iyan the night elf warrior actually looks sleeker than before, less... malformed than male night elves used to look, which is a good thing. His new running animation looks really weird though.

I generally didn't check out the animations in great detail, though I noticed that all the running animations seemed to have gained a bit of a "cartoony bounce" that wasn't there before, or at least not to the same extent. I didn't seem too bad on most races though, with the male night elf being the noticeable exception.

I also noticed that characters change their facial expressions now when they run around and use abilities, which is neat but also a bit... weird. Like, when my night elf casts a healing spell here, she looks angry enough to want to bite someone's head off (watch those canines), which struck me as slightly over the top.

Overall I think Blizzard did a good job with these though, with more good results than bad. Still, it's a shame about the female tauren and dwarves. Knowing Blizzard, I think it's unlikely that they will go back at this point and make any more changes though, even if people post mega-threads on the forums begging them to do so.

16/08/2014

World of Warcraft Cinematic Reactions Over Time

Vanilla WoW



Cinematic message: This is Azeroth, a world full of varied locations and fantastic races who get into badass-looking fights with each other.

My Reaction: This looks amazing, can I be a shape-shifting elf lady too?

Burning Crusade



Cinematic message: Here are some new races you can play. Don't worry though, the old ones are still badass too. Watch a mage sheep a guy and a warlock incinerate murlocs. Hilarious! Also, something about entering the realm of a guy who says that we're not prepared for him.

My Reaction: I have no idea who that demon guy is, but still: looking great! Bring on those new races!

Wrath of the Lich King



Cinematic message: Watch this guy who looks like Sauron raise a skeletal dragon from the ice in a faraway frozen land. He also has a zombie army. The narration implies that he was once a good guy and that there's something like dramatic irony at work.

My Reaction: Well, I'm not sure what this has to do with me, but I guess someone's got to fight that zombie army.

Cataclysm



Cinematic message: Watch a giant, angry dragon wreck the world.

My Reaction: Oi, I was still using that! Quick, let's get him while he's still in Stormwind!

(I wish.)

Mists of Pandaria



Cinematic message: An orc and a human fight each other in a foreign jungle, which seems quite foolish considering that they are shipwrecked with nothing but the clothes on their body. A panda appears and kicks their butts in a humorous fashion.

My Reaction: So, are pandas the bad guys? And will this usher in a new age of peace between the Horde and Alliance as they unite to fight a common foe?

Warlords of Draenor



Cinematic message: Some orc in the past is about to do something very unwise by drinking green goo. But then things don't go as expected and the orcs beat up the big demon and the clearly evil guys.

My Reaction: Go orcs, I guess? Whose side are we on anyway?

The bottom line is, for an MMO trailer to inspire me, it has to make me feel like I want to be part of the pictured world. I can kind of understand why Blizzard moved away from the "look at random characters engage in cool fight scenes" style of the first two trailers, as it probably would have been hard to keep making them that way without things getting repetitive and boring after a while. But especially the trailers for the last two expansions have felt increasingly directionless to me. Why should I be invested in this as a player? This isn't advertising for a movie, where I'll be happy to watch someone else's story play out for two hours. I need to know what this expansion means for me.

Sure, some lore fans will go nuts over seeing Grom again, and seeing him refuse the demon blood and survive. But I reckon that for a lot of people, this is just going to be a bunch of orcs doing stuff that doesn't really relate to anything.

11/08/2014

10 Years :: 10 Questions

Via various sources I've found myself directed to this post on the ALT : ernative blog, which encourages both current and former players of World of Warcraft to answer ten questions about the game, both as a kind of community sharing experience in celebration of the game's upcoming tenth birthday, as well as to serve as a sort of survey of things that have mattered to WoW players over the years. Since it was explicitly stated that the thoughts of ex-players were welcome too, I thought I might as well put my answers up as a blog post here.

1. Why did you start playing Warcraft?

I remember the concept of MMOs coming to my attention when I discovered the website of the back then upcoming but still unreleased (and now shut down) Warhammer Online. The idea of a virtual world in a fantasy setting sounded amazing, however the game wasn't supposed to launch for another two years or so. World of Warcraft however offered a similar idea and was readily available to play. I also had at least one friend who was already playing it and recommended it to me as being a decent amount of fun. I believe that the South Park episode had also just come out around that time, so I got a sort of humorous preview of what the game was going to be like. All these factors combined got me intrigued enough to want to give the game a try, even as I worried a little about the supposed addictiveness of MMOs.

2. What was the first ever character you rolled?

A female human paladin. As someone who had never played a Blizzard game before, the variety of races seemed kind of confusing. What makes night elves different from regular elves? Orcs are not evil then? I was under the highly misguided impression that since the genre was called "MMORPG", everyone would be expected to have some sort of roleplaying background, and I was terrified of being caught unaware of what it meant to be a member of one of the (in my eyes) more eclectic races. Human seemed like the safest choice simply because it was the only species I could actually relate to.

I had also read the little manual that came with the game (I know, right?) and paladin sounded both like a class that I thought I'd feel comfortable with in terms of its character as well as extremely powerful. I had no concept yet of how combat and health bars were going to work and assumed that the only way to heal injuries would be to see a healer. The idea of rolling anything but a class that was able to heal itself seemed foolish.

3. Which factors determined your faction choice in game?

I described the train of thought that led to me rolling a human paladin, but I already rerolled the next day to start levelling with two friends. We were Alliance because the most experienced of them had recommended it to us as "the more newbie-friendly faction" or something like that. About a year later I switched to playing mainly on Horde side, also after having been coaxed into it by the same two friends.

4. What has been your most memorable moment in Warcraft and why?

There are too many to count, but most of them are undoubtedly from my early days of levelling and exploring the in-game world. Being overcome with wonder every step of the way in Elwynn Forest. Falling off Teldrassil. Flying across the ocean for the first time to get to Darkshore. Getting myself PvP flagged by accident and getting ganked by a high level player. Exploring the seemingly endless forests of Ashenvale. Grouping up with people to tackle difficult content together and having a blast. Travelling back and forth across both continents and constantly discovering new things. Getting invited to tag along to a raid, even as I had no clue what I was doing. Rolling on an RP server and getting engaged in random roleplay out in the world.

Experiencing the release of Burning Crusade and levelling a group of Draenei with three friends. (Looking back at that, I have no idea how we managed to stay relatively in sync, seeing how we had no real life connection to each other.) Joining a guild and getting to raid properly. Experiencing many exciting boss kills.

5. What is your favourite aspect of the game and has this always been the case?

This one is a bit hard for me to answer as an ex-player, since I don't have any particularly strong feelings about any aspect of the game as it exists right now. I know I used to love exploring and tackling challenges with other people, but as those things became harder to come by, I also found a lot of enjoyment in activities like levelling alts and engaging in PvP.

6. Do you have an area in game that you always return to?

The cities in which I spent most of my time always have a certain feeling of "coming home" to them. That would be Stormwind and Darnassus on Alliance side, Orgrimmar and Thunder Bluff on Horde side, as well as Shattrath in Outland, as Burning Crusade was undoubtedly the time when I genuinely enjoyed myself for the longest stretch of time.

As far as open world zones go, my fondest memories are probably of Outland, and Nagrand in particular. When I first unsubscribed, I parked my main in Nagrand before I logged out for the last time.

7. How long have you /played and has that been continuous?

I obviously can't check this without being subscribed, but I was continuously subscribed for over five years. I dropped my sub a few months after the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic and haven't really got back into the game since then, even though my pet tank gifted me some play time at the end of last year and we spent a couple of months levelling a pair of alts together.

8. Admit it: do you read quest text or not?

Yes, and I don't think I'll ever really understand why so many people don't, not even the first time.

9. Are there any regrets from your time in game?

I think there was definitely a time when I was more focused on the game than was healthy, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say that I wish it hadn't happened, it did have a negative impact on my real life at the time. I also kind of regret not being more open-minded about other MMOs earlier. While I got several years of genuine enjoyment out of WoW, I think that before I finally unsubscribed, I also spent a fair amount of time playing - and not actually being happy with the game - simply because it was all I knew. I think it would have done me good to become a more informed and selective customer earlier.

10. What effect has Warcraft had on your life outside gaming?

Quite the effect. I made more than a few friends inside the game whom I visited in real life as well, and I met a special someone for whom I moved to a different country. While we're not together anymore, I don't regret where WoW and our relationship has got me.

WoW also helped me secure my first job in the UK, as it came up during the job interview and it turned out that the interviewer (who was also my manager-to-be) played as well. I pretty much knew that I had got that job the moment that came up.

10/04/2014

You Knew This Was Coming...

You could probably already guess from my lack of posting here as of late, but I thought that I should make it official: my current WoW sub ran out at the end of March and it looks like my pre-WoD stint with the game has come to an end. I enjoyed my time in Pandaria and it was nice to see Blizzard go back to a slightly more "worldly" zone and quest design on that continent, with optional mini quest hubs similar to the ones in Northrend, and more "hidden" surprises out in the world that were worth discovering. (That time my pet tank unexpectedly fished up a Lurker-lookalike rare mob out of a giant fishing pool for example was awesome.)

I didn't exactly run out of things to do, as I still had a bunch of goals that I could have worked towards - but I just wasn't drawn in enough to prioritise WoW over other things. By the end I was only logging in to do a certain amount of "chores" every day and eventually I asked myself: why am I doing this when I'd rather be doing something else? To what end? And that was that.

One statement I often see when people go back to WoW after a period of absence is how it feels like going home, or how they think that WoW is still the best MMO out there. For me, this simply wasn't the case. For me, the experience has been more alike to meeting someone who used to be your best friend in childhood, but while you're happy to see them, you've developed into completely different directions in adulthood and it's pretty much impossible to have a non-awkward conversation about anything that isn't "the good old days". Really, that's me and WoW in a nutshell.

For example, WoW just feels too fast for me these days, in pretty much every respect. It's like the player base's unofficial motto is "wherever you are and whatever you're doing, you would rather be somewhere else already". I'm not expecting people to listen to every NPC conversation they've heard ten times before, but there are... gradients. There was this one time I decided on a lark to queue for a random dungeon on my lowbie ret paladin. I got into the last part of Maraudon with a tank/healer duo in full heirlooms that were clearly working together and were absolutely racing to the end, AoEing trash pulls on the go and skipping all the bosses but the last one. It seemed like every time I paused to loot something, they were already a mile ahead again, to the point that I spent most of the dungeon just jogging after the rest of the group and not actually hitting anything. I'm sure many people would have considered that a great run. Lots of XP for little effort! Me? I absolutely hated it. In fact, I was so disgusted that I didn't even want to touch my paladin for a couple of days afterwards, as if she had pug cooties or something. Every game has both its clueless players and its jerks, but if even getting into a pug with competent and not unfriendly people results in something that feels like a horrible experience to me, then I'm clearly playing the wrong game.

I also think that, in general, my standards of what I expect from an MMO have become higher. There have always been things about WoW that annoyed me, but I used to accept them simply because I didn't know anything else. Nowadays I know that WoW is not the gold standard for everything. Depending on what matters to you in an MMO, there absolutely are other games out there that do certain things better. For example I know now that playing a healer doesn't have to mean living on a constant rollercoaster of massive nerfs and buffs and play style revamps. I've also had friendly commenters chime in with genuinely well-intended advice such as "you just need to watch some videos / read this guide" or "you can download this addon" when I expressed annoyance about simple aspects of the game, and all I could think is: why should I have to do that when I can play other games without needing that amount of outside resources to "make" it fun? (For what it's worth, I was happily addon-less during the last four months.)

All these are things that matter to me and that seem to pretty firmly put me outside of WoW's target demographic these days. I still plan on checking out Warlords of Draenor eventually, if nothing else to have a look at this alternate Outland and to check out my old characters' new looks after Blizzard revamps the character models. I'm just not sure if I'll bother right at launch.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by to comment in the last couple of months, both old bloggers who still had this site on their blogroll and new readers that found me by clicking a random link somewhere. It's been nice to chat.

05/04/2014

Account-Wide

(Hm, apparently this has been sitting in my drafts folder for over a month but I never posted it... might as well.)

One of the big changes to the game in Mists of Pandaria is that a lot of things that used to be bound to a specific character are now bound to the account/player instead. Now, as a general rule I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of this. I always feel for Bhagpuss when he's trying to explain to people why it matters that characters are their own - well, characters, and not just different puppets for the player to mess around with, even if you're not a roleplayer. I've always felt the same way really and never thought of that attitude as very peculiar... but apparently there are a lot of MMO players out there to whom these things don't matter. Still, to me it feels kind of wrong that a pet that I buy on one character should suddenly be available to any of my characters - without any kind of explanation anyway. However, I think WoW gave up on in-game explanations for convenience features a long time ago, probably around the time they introduced the dungeon finder. Anyway, with that out of the way...

Achievements

Now this is the one thing I don't mind becoming account-bound, because achievements have always been aimed at the player anyway. They don't really exist from an in-game point of view and are thus irrelevant to individual characters. When The Old Republic added an achievement system last year, they made it account-wide right away, and it's been working very well in my opionion. Once you're on your tenth alt in that game though, you won't see many achievements pop up anymore as you level, simply because you've already done it all - though there are still codex entries to collect on a per character basis (which are similar to achievements, but separate).

From that point of view, I like WoW's current idea of having both account-wide achievements (for the more difficult ones) and character-bound ones (for the easier ones). It combines the benefits of not feeling annoyed when you get a tough achievement while on an alt ("Why couldn't I have got that on my main?!") while maintaining a steady stream of flashy dings throughout the levelling process, even as you explore Mulgore for the fifteenth time.

The only problem I have with it is that the implementation in the achievement panel is wonky. For an example of what I mean, take the World Explorer achievement. That's labelled as account-wide, fair enough. The associated sub-achievements however are not, yet they still light up as already done even on a new character. Only if you dig deeper and check the sub-requirements for those achievements, they will show up as incomplete, and if you complete them, you'll get an achievement pop-up as if you'd never done it before. This is confusing and makes it hard to keep track of character-based achievements that are related to an account-bound meta. I kind of feel that they should have been able to find a better way to do that.

Mounts

Probably my least favourite new account-wide thing. It offers some convenience, sure - when my Worgen druid hit twenty, I could just pull out a random mount and use that instead of going to buy her a new one. (Well, strictly speaking I could have stuck with Running Wild on a Worgen, but I don't like that ability very much.) Not to mention that all my alts capable of riding have access to my Traveler's Tundra Mammoth now, meaning that they can pull out a vendor whenever and wherever they feel like it.

On the flip side though, that special connection between a character and his or her unique mounts is gone. When I looked at my new account-wide mount panel after having logged through a couple of alts for the first time, I was most surprised to find a Headless Horseman's Mount in there. I don't even remember when I got it, I'm guessing that one of my alts must have been lucky when I already didn't care that much anymore... but now I don't even know who it "belonged" to. And sure, I could ride my Amani War Bear on any of my characters now - but it'd feel wrong as they aren't the ones I earned it on. I just don't quite see the point other than bragging rights. Finding and earning the right mount for a new character used to be a rite of passage... but when you already have access to everything you've ever owned in the game, that journey is one that you can't really re-take.

Also, it feels like parts of the game haven't really been streamlined to take this new feature into account. For example if you do the Vashj'ir intro now, you still get a seahorse mount as a quest reward that you can't use and the only thing you can do with it is throw it away. (Delete a mount! The blasphemy!) I would've thought that the game should be able to recognise if you already have a certain mount and shouldn't clutter up your bags with pointless duplicates.

Pets

Like with mounts, I feel that there used to be a connection between characters and their pets, though I personally didn't perceive this as strongly as the link with mounts, as I've never been much of a pet collector. Still, this link is obviously gone now. However, I'm willing to be more forgiving with this one as I can see it being almost a necessity to make the new pet battle feature work - else you'd constantly find yourself running into rare pets on the wrong character. The fact that you can box some pets up and re-sell them also makes it an awesome way of transferring money between servers. Again, the only thing that bugs me is that some details feel unnecessarily clunky - such as that some pets are BoP until you learn them, at which point you can cage them and they become BoE. It's quite annoying when you already have three or more of a particular pet and instead of being able to sell it right away, you have to cage one of your existing pets and then learn the new one. Just seems... unnecessary.

Titles


This one I have slightly mixed feelings about. I can see the point of people enjoying the ability to carry the bragging rights onto all their alts, though personally I (once again) wouldn't much fancy using a title on a character that didn't actually earn it. Sure, I was majorly miffed when I only got "The Undying" on my alt and not my main back in the day, but pretending that it didn't happen and wearing the title on my main doesn't "un-do" what happened. I also noticed that some titles, while account-wide, have retained a level restriction, which just strikes me as really random. If I'm going to run around wearing "Hand of A'dal" on a character that didn't earn it anyway, why does it still matter what level that character is? Either way, I don't feel like there is much of a loss to me from being able to wear a different title - they never felt quite as special to me as mounts for example.

One reason I do like the new account-wide titles is that it takes WoW quite a while to give you any titles as you level up, and this way you can pick something from your existing collection while levelling. I don't mind using something silly like "the Love Fool" or "Jenkins" on a lowbie for example, as I don't have a particular attachment to these titles and it does give my character a little more definition.

13/03/2014

Casual Endgame?

When I first logged back into WoW back in December, I was surprised by how many people on my Battle.net friends list were still playing. I guess that's one of the things that keeps bringing many people back to WoW time after time: always having friends to play with. I actually got several offers to join groups for endgame PvE or PvP, but politely declined as I had no interest in getting back into that aspect of WoW. I just wanted to have some fun exploring the new content on a casual basis with my pet tank. But hey, WoW is supposed to be the perfect game for that kind of thing, isn't it?

While we were levelling, this play style worked very well. We actually played quite a lot then, simply because we were having fun. Ever since we hit max level however, I feel that our engagement has been declining. Right now I basically log on to tend to my crops, serve some noodles, do a bit of archaeology and log off again.

I really loved the Tillers by the way. I loved to see the progression of the story and unlocking more parts of the farm. Once that was done, I worked on becoming best friends with all the individual Tillers. Once that was done, I maxed out all my cooking ways and did the various extra quests that popped up along the way (the whole noodle cart thing, cooking one of each max-level food etc.). But now that that's all said and done I can feel my interest waning. I continue planting crops every day to fulfill work orders, but it doesn't feel nearly as satisfying.

Dailies

I have quite a few factions left that need reputation, but I'm just not really a dailies person. That's not to say that I never do them, but even just a couple of days in a row tend to make me feel burnt out. I just don't do this whole "highly controlled drip-feed of content" thing very well. When I'm new to a faction and my interest is high, I'd happily binge play and do loads of stuff for them, but of course the game won't let me do that.

Timeless Isle

The Timeless Isle is a funny thing. I've noticed that once I'm actually there and doing stuff, I tend to have decent amounts of fun, but for some reason I really struggle to motivate myself into going there in the first place. I blame the stupid flight path that insists on going all over Jade Forest before actually turning towards the Isle...

Pet Battles

I haven't really said anything about pet battles aside from a brief mention when I first discovered the feature and that it looked pretty fun. I actually picked out my favourite pets after that and made an effort to level them, but around pet level twelve or thirteen my interest just fizzled out again as it started to feel pretty dull and grindy to continually swap pets in and out just to fight dozens of parrots. Switching zones for variety in opponents didn't really help either. I don't know... I don't think it's you, pet battles; it's me.

Dungeons

We did each Pandaria dungeon at least once, including the heroics (I think there might be one or two we haven't done on heroic left; not sure right now) but there doesn't seem to be much reason to do them beyond seeing the story once, as the gear drops become useless quickly and valor rains from the sky anyway.

Scenarios

There are actually quite a few scenarios left that we haven't done yet, but I haven't been too impressed by the whole feature anyway. I think my interest in queuing for them took a nosedive after the randomiser gave us one too many that seemed to be part of a bigger story somewhere that we didn't know anything about, leaving me with the feeling that I shouldn't queue up again until I've explored every nook and cranny of Pandaria and can be sure that I know the context. (This is an interesting contrast to the dungeons by the way, where I had no problem "jumping ahead" in the story.)

Gearing Up

Ah, that old staple of MMO entertainment: if you've got nothing else to do, improve your character's gear! I recalled that working reasonably well even on a casual basis in WoW as it was before I left it, as you'd get justice and valor points for running dungeons and could then use those to buy gear that was only slightly worse than current raid drops.

How times have changed!

Bizarrely, valor is pretty much raining from the skies these days, as you get some even just for doing daily quests, but finding things to actually spend it on seems to be the tricky part now. I don't find myself saving up to buy valor gear, I find myself frantically searching for vendors because I'm about to hit the cap again and don't know what to spend my money on! I thought it was highly hilarious when I flew to a place where valor and justice point vendors were highlighted on the in-game map, just to find that the NPC labelled as "Valor Quartermaster" won't accept any currency but justice points. Instead, bits and pieces of valor gear are hidden away on various reputation vendors across Pandaria, if you can find them and if you have the right reputation level, but if you want anything close to a full set of "good" gear, it seems that the only way to get one is to run Looking For Raid.

Now, since the last time my pet tank and I went in there wasn't too bad, we decided to give it another go. And it still wasn't too bad, but frankly, as a "casual" form of endgame I think it kind of sucks. The problem is that if you factor in queue times, time to actually kill all the trash and bosses and the occasional wipe, just clearing one raid still takes several hours... so basically as long as a "proper" raid, only without any of the fun bits like socialising or facing challenging content. After spending a weekend in various LFR runs, we were utterly exhausted and once again feeling burnt out.

I think the end of my nostalgic revisiting of the World of Warcraft may be drawing near...

05/03/2014

Proving Grounds

Apparently there was a bit of a discussion the other week about a blue comment saying that in the next expansion, a Proving Grounds silver medal will be required to do heroic dungeons via the dungeon finder. I don't have much of an opinion on this as I'm only really interested in a "decent human being" filter if anything, and that's something that Blizzard will never provide. As far as random hoops to jump through go, they could have picked something worse to force people to demonstrate their skill.

I do feel that this whole thing has given me an excuse to actually talk about Proving Grounds though, which are once again a feature that's new in Mists of Pandaria. I have to admit that my first impression of them was very positive. I think that it makes sense to give people a challenge against which they can test themselves to practice their skills, and since Blizzard seems to have given up on the idea of levelling being supposed to teach you anything, having a substitute at endgame is better than nothing.

I managed to get the bronze healing medal easily, and only failed once on the silver one as I forgot to heal myself at a crucial moment the first time around. The behaviour of the NPCs I had to heal was both true to real life and amusing. My favourite moment was when two of them got into a discussion about my dispelling, with one of them urging me to dispel faster, while another took my side and stated that I was clearly already doing the best I could.

After that, I thought I'd switch to feral and try the dps challenge next. I managed bronze without too much trouble (though it did take me a couple of attempts), but silver soon had me running up against a wall. The bugs that conjure amber globs just forced me to lose too much dps time dodging their conjurations and I inevitably ran out of time. I got up to the last wave several times, but failed that one every time. Sometimes I also randomly failed on earlier waves again, as I just couldn't get enough clearcasting procs and had to helplessly watch the timer tick down while I was unable to do anything but auto-attack.

I've gone back to re-try the challenge several times now, but having to start on wave one on every attempt gets tedious quite quickly. It's like having to deal with the trash on ye olde Battle for Mount Hyjal, only without the banter and camaraderie. The inconsistency of my own performance is also frustrating, what with the random failures on earlier waves when I have no energy. I can't help but think that the whole challenge would be so much easier as a ranged class, or even just as a melee class that isn't designed around doing a large chunk of its damage via a long-lasting DoT that requires some build-up (and is therefore completely useless in Proving Grounds).

With that in mind, I can't help but think that - while not terrible - this isn't going to be a very fair bar to measure people against in Warlords of Draenor, unless they drastically change the design of some of these challenges in the expansion. Or maybe my continued failure is just another way of WoW telling me that I'm not good enough to play it anymore.

17/02/2014

Monday Random Thoughts

I hope the Grumpy Elf won't mind me stealing one of his frequently reused post titles... but it is Monday, and I have a couple of things to talk about that don't really warrant posts of their own.

First off, I was vastly amused when I saw this in chat on the Silvermoon server (where my little Draenei alt lives):

For all the complaining people do about the evilness of random lockboxes, they are apparently popular enough that people feel the need to make their own if a game doesn't provide them. I wonder if someone at Blizzard is watching and taking note of this demand... No, don't answer that; I'm aware that this type of gambling is more likely to break some kind of in-game rule than be adapted as an example to follow.

Speaking of my Draenei alt, I was questing in the Plaguelands with her and thinking about how despite its age and many issues, WoW is still amazingly beautiful and atmospheric in many places. Of course, then I approached the dead town of Caer Darrow and...

HI LOL LOVE IS IN THE AIR! This is just one reason I hate all those seasonal festivals in WoW. There is room for silliness in the game of course, but the way it has become ubiquitous and unescapable, even in places where it really hurts the setting - that annoys me. It makes the world feel ridiculous when it really doesn't have to be.

Speaking of ridiculous things, the amount of self-healing tanks and dps do in this game nowadays has become a joke. I've been thinking about that for a while, but it really struck me the other day when I managed to get stuck and found myself unable to die.

Continuing my little side project of showing my pet tank all the old raids he never saw, we decided to venture into Ulduar. I was a bit rusty on tactics and didn't explain some things very well, so I ended up trapped by a constrictor tentacle on Yogg-Saron and Pet Tank died. Oh well, we'll just wipe up and try again - or so I thought. Only one problem: I couldn't die. My sanity didn't go down any further, Ysera's Gift kept healing me, and I was stunned and unable to do anything. My pet tank eventually left the group to get his corpse kicked out of the instance and I Alt+F4ed out of the game. When I started it back up a few minutes later, guess what? I was still alive and trapped by that bloody tentacle. There were tentacles everywhere and yet they couldn't kill me.

Once I surpassed about a dozen debuffs, my health finally started to dip... just for Hodir to save my life with his flash freeze, and the moment it wore off I was immediately back in a constrictor. I've never missed SWTOR's /stuck command so badly (which allows you to "commit suicide" while in combat). Eventually I managed to achieve death by immediately clicking the flash freeze away the next time it saved me and instantly jumping towards a crusher tentacle so it could whack me dead. Death never felt like such a relief before.

Finally, on a more positive note, I've had some more fun on the Timeless Isle. I found a treasure-hunting quest in a mound of dirt, and when it became obvious that it was directing me towards the one part of the island I hadn't been to yet (across the broken bridge), I finally got off my butt to find out how to get there.

That bridge is a funny thing to the ignorant new player. You watch others run up to it and just fly across, as if by magic! If you're anything like me, you might think: aha, so it's like an Indiana Jones leap of faith thing; I just have to run straight off and... oh, guess not.

I don't expect to get a legendary cloak any time soon, and while there was an option to get across with a vendor-bought glider, I'm too attached to my timeless coins for other purposes, so I was delighted when I found out that there is actually a way to get up there for free: attack a passing albatross until it grabs you, then just hang in for the ride! It's such a silly thing, but in this case I really enjoyed it. It's nice to have an option to get around for players that aren't as advanced, even if it's slower and more of a hassle.

Another thing I found on the Timeless Isle was a quest for a "secret" noodle recipe. It's really old school, requiring you to run back and forth a lot and to complete two dungeons. It amuses me how Blizzard has repeatedly sworn off that kind of design, yet every now and then they still put stuff like that in. Anyway, it was quite fun, until it cumulated in another solo scenario, which required me to... serve noodle dishes to pandas. It's actually pretty fun as a mini-game; it just seemed kind of bizarre to me since I don't recall ever seeing anything this blatantly "gamey" in WoW before, for all the gamification it has suffered over the years. In fact, it reminded me a lot of an old C64 game I used to play, called Tapper, that required you to rush back and forth behind a bar to serve drinks to impatiently approaching customers. Just... weird. The only thing that drives me crazy about it is that the background music is the same little ditty that plays in all the Pandarian inns... and which is my least favourite bit of Warcraft music ever.

15/02/2014

Braving Looking For Raid

I was feeling very ambivalent about whether I should even bother to give the MoP raid finder a try or not. On the one hand there was a certain appeal to the idea of "seeing the content" in some fashion, plus we had actually acquired a couple of quests that straight-up told us to go and do certain raids (such as the legendary quest line). In terms of gear, LFR also seemed to offer a smoother progression curve than continuing to grind things on the Timeless Isle in hopes of getting a suitable loot drop. On the other hand I remembered that the few times I did the Dragon Soul LFR back in Cata felt very disjointed and unsatisfying, and from everything I'd heard, the types of people you meet in the raid finder could be very unpleasant these days (to put it mildly).

In the end it was probably this post by the Ancient Gaming Noob that tipped the scales in favour in the end, as he describes his experience as going into LFR more or less completely blind and having no problems whatsoever, presumably because by this point in the expansion, a critical mass of players could do the fights in their sleep and a couple of clueless newbies don't really make a difference either way.

So my pet tank and I decided to queue up for Mogu'shan Vaults on Saturday afternoon, the first option on the LFR drop-down list, me as healer and him as dps for a change. (I had urged him to not queue as tank at least during our first time, as I was worried about that role making him a target for abuse if things went wrong, especially since neither of us knew anything about the fights.) We had to wait about twenty minutes, as there seemed to be a dps shortage - of all things! This pattern continued throughout most of the afternoon: always enough tanks and healers, never enough dps. Still, we ended up completing both halves of Mogu'shan Vaults in the end, as well as the entirety of Heart of Fear. It was a very smooth experience with no wipes, but with the queue times for each wing the whole thing still ended up feeling quite long.

When we first zoned into Mogu'shan Vaults, I was surprised to see a lot of people actually bothering to say "hi" in chat. While there wasn't a lot of talk throughout the rest of our runs, the atmosphere felt pretty relaxed and laid back. It was obvious that we weren't the only ones new to LFR, but as anticipated there were also more than enough players who knew what they were doing and they didn't seem to mind carrying a bit of extra weight. In the first half of Mogu'shan Vaults for example we had a shaman who got locked out and died during the second boss, and while he received a res afterwards, he didn't accept it, presumably because he was AFK by that point. Nobody said anything or even bothered to initiate a vote kick though; he just stayed there, dead, until the group had killed the last boss and disbanded.

There wasn't much talk of tactics, but what little there was felt good-natured and us noobs were happy to follow anyone who was willing to lead. The only time I saw people getting cross was during Blade Lord Ta'yak, when the whole group had to run across the room dodging tornadoes, and a hunter insisted on having Aspect of the Pack on, causing everyone to be permanently dazed and making it nearly impossible to move as we were supposed to. Still, I've seen insults a lot worse than "huntard" in my time.

I suppose it was easy to be agreeable since we never wiped. Personally I just died twice, once on the trash to Gara'jal the Spiritbinder, where I got caught by surprise by the first set of bombs, and a second time on the aforementioned Blade Lord, when he cast Unseen Strike on me and I instinctively ran away from the group when I actually should have stacked up to survive.

Running these two raids in LFR also provided both me and Pet Tank with the biggest loot rush since our first day on the Timeless Isle. Based on the many rants I'd seen from people about how they keep getting nothing but bags of gold, I thought that the item drop rate would be atrocious, but in reality we got an item pretty much from every other boss, sometimes two if we used a bonus roll. They weren't always useful (I got three near-identical cloaks for example), but there was enough good stuff in there that it definitely felt worthwhile.

All in all, I was ready for things to go horribly wrong, but not only did that not happen, I actually had fun. No, the healing itself wasn't very engaging (mostly just a lot of spamming AoE heals), but it was interesting to go in blind and to learn new boss mechanics on the fly. Everyone acted civil. And the raids themselves were... okay I guess? Heart of Fear seemed like a bit of an unpleasant place with the impaled yet still squirming bug people at the entrance and all the annoyingly squeaky-voiced bosses, but other than that it was alright.

I remember that one of the things I hated about doing Dragon Soul in LFR was how it kept putting me into runs in progress and due to the nature of the instance the whole thing just felt terrible disjointed, what with going from Wyrmrest through random portals to parachuting from an airship to crashing into the Maelstrom. I suppose we got lucky this time around in that the system put us into fresh runs every time, but I think that even if we had missed a boss or two, it wouldn't have felt as bad as it did back in Dragon Soul because both Mogu'shan Vaults and Heart of Fear are a lot more self-contained.

We'll see whether we'll manage to hang in there for long enough to get geared up for Siege of Orgrimmar.

13/02/2014

Scratching My Head About Scenarios

Scenarios are another one of those features that have been new in Mists of Pandaria and thus new to me. I haven't done all of them yet, but I think I've seen enough of them (plus a couple of heroic ones actually) to be able to form an opinion. Generally speaking, most of them seem to be pretty fun the first time around - for the sheer novelty value if nothing else - and then become dull as dishwater once you start repeating them. I've been trying to put my finger on why that is.

I think one of the major issues I have with them is that they just feel a bit... clunky. In terms of gameplay, scenarios seem to fall halfway between a regular quest and a dungeon, but it seems to me that the aspects they chose to incorporate from both sides don't really go well together. Like many quests, scenarios seem to like telling a story, but unless you just happened to find the intro quest to that specific scenario out in the world, you'll be dumped smack in the middle of things with no explanation of where you are, what's going on, or why you're doing what you're doing. In a dungeon, not knowing the background usually isn't as much of an issue, since they all share the overall "theme" of clearing an area of bad guys and defeating a big bad or two, plus the dungeon quests tend to at least give you a brief summary of the most key points. In a scenario you got that little box to track progress and that's it.

To add to the confusion, many scenarios seem to like to make things "interesting" by requiring lots of special actions from you and your character, such as collecting supplies, planting explosives, firing cannons, swinging from ropes etc. They are always marked quite clearly and big red text in the middle of the screen usually tells you what to do, but still... let's just say that expecting people to figure out new game mechanics while being thrown into a typical "rush rush" style WoW pug was not the smartest idea Blizzard's ever had.

On top of that, scenarios seem to be extremely unrewarding, which makes repeating them feel like a waste of time. If you queue for a random, you do get a small reward for that, but if you do a specific scenario you get absolutely nothing for it, nada (unless you count the satisfaction of actually getting the one you had a quest for). The bosses drop nothing, and you won't even get a couple of silver off the trash. I don't know why that is; it's a small thing but it really leaves me feeling disappointed after every scenario completion.

The sad thing is, for all these flaws I could see scenarios make for an interesting addition to the levelling game, just to do something slightly different from questing or running dungeons all the time. Just getting XP for each one would already make doing them a lot more worthwhile. But no, Blizzard restricted all of them to max level, where players will have a dozen other things to do that are more fun, more rewarding or both at the same time. It just strikes me as a lot of wasted potential.

03/02/2014

Enjoying Archaeology Changes

Since the last post was a bit of a rant, I thought I'd follow it up with writing about something that I've quite liked in MoP: the changes they've made to archaeology. I really like them.

That's the short version.

The long version is this: I've always liked archaeology. When I made a post about my five favourite Cataclysm additions, archaeology was one of them. (Though looking back, the profession dailies in the capital cities really should have been on that list as well as I absolutely looove them, but eh, I digress.) In one of my posts about levelling this newest set of characters I mentioned that I initially tried to keep up with archaeology as we levelled, but quickly found it to be too much of a hassle as it kept sending me away from where we actually wanted to quest.

I eventually picked it up again when I got swift flight, and I've also been dabbling around on a lowbie alt that I'm trying to level mostly through archaeology. (In short, it's slow and never getting any gear is sad, but the XP from dig sites is great once you actually get to one.)

It's quite amazing how quickly you advance the profession now compared to how it used to be. I'll always remember the way it was at Cataclysm launch, with each dig site only consisting of three digs, and each one only giving you three or four archaeology fragments. I know they increased the number of fragments relatively early on, but it's still nothing compared to now, where each site consists of six digs, with each of them routinely wielding seven to nine fragments. In practice that means that nearly every dig site allows you to create another artefact now.

Even bigger however is the fact that digging never stops giving skill-ups. Remember when that used to stop at 75 skill, and your only way to progress any further was through solving artefacts? Yeah, getting six guaranteed skill-ups per dig site makes a huuuge difference.

To be honest, I never understood the logic behind digging going grey so quickly. I considered it just as much a part of the process as the solving itself. It's as if mining suddenly stopped giving skill-ups completely at one point and your only way of progressing any further was through smelting. I would've understood it if they had done something similar to the way mining works, so that you needed to dig in an area appropriate for your skill level to get skill-ups or something, but everything going grey at 75 just never made sense to me. Blizzard changing that made me really happy.

So with every act of digging giving a skill-up and artefact fragments rolling in at about six times the speed they used to, those skill levels just fly by. I remember circling around a group of conveniently re-spawning dig sites in the Eastern Kingdoms, thinking that I'd just do "a couple more" before stopping for the day, just to find that I was nearly ready for Northrend before I'd even started digging in Outland. Considering that I remember longing for Outland, because skilling up was so slow and I was desperate for a change of pace, that was quite surprising.

I was ready to dig in Pandaria in no time, and that's where I discovered some more pleasant surprises. One of the few remaining annoyances with old world archaeology is the size of some dig sites. Some of them are so huge that - even with fast flying - it feels like a drag to be sent back and forth between their opposing ends. Compared to that, all the dig sites in Pandaria are positively tiny. You literally just have to take a couple of steps to the left or the right between digs, at the most. This makes them very quick to complete. Every now and then a Sha remnant will pop out of the ground too, attack you and drop some extra fragments to spice things up.

In the Seat of Knowledge, there are also some NPCs that give you a daily archaeology quest to do, usually asking you to solve a single artefact, sometimes to just hand them some fragments. And then comes the real kicker: common Pandaria artefacts can be recycled instead of vendored. Brann Bronzebeard is about again, and he'll trade you a boxed up Pandaria artefact for a crate of fragments from any other type. No more flying up and down Kalimdor in the hopes of eventually getting a tol'vir dig site - just keep working on those Pandaland dig sites and trade the results for tol'vir fragments. While the exchange rate means that you effectively trade a whole artefact for one dig's worth of fragments, it's just so much more convenient than doing it the old way that I can't see anyone going back once they've unlocked this feature.

I suppose it's a bit of a shame that they've effectively made one of archaeology's main features - an incentive to go back and see the world - redundant, as you're better off just doing all your archaeology business in Pandaria as soon as you're able. But they've certainly made the profession a lot less of a hassle in pretty much every respect.

31/01/2014

Why I Think MoP Character Levelling Is Terrible

For the most part I've been pretty pleasantly surprised by this expansion... but there is one thing I've found to be absolutely atrocious, and that's the way characters level up and acquire new abilities in MoP.

Initially I was going to title this post "why I think the MoP talents are terrible", but to be honest the talents themselves aren't the issue. Only getting a talent point every fifteen levels is supremely boring, mind you, and even when you get one there is no guarantee that the associated talent tier won't be boring or pointless as well. "Yes, please! Let me choose one of three crowd control abilities which I'll never use (unless I PvP) since this game made crowd control redundant two expansions ago!" But that's not the issue. I can live with boring. (And some of them are useful/interesting.)

No, my problem lies with how, in association with the new talent system, they changed the way you acquire new abilities in general. I can only imagine how obtuse the whole system must be to a genuinely new player, because even as someone who played the game for over five years and just returned after a leave of absence I found it quite confusing and irritating.

For reference, let's look at the way things used to work. There were only two things to consider while levelling up: your class abilities and your talents/specialisation. To learn new class abilities, you would visit a trainer in a city. You would see a list of what you could train since you levelled up and had time to familiarise yourself with each new ability, decide where to place it on your bars etc.

Talent points could be spent anywhere at your leisure, but there was a handy tree so you could always see how your spec would progress over time. So if you put your points into the restoration tree for example, you could easily see how each talent improved your healing in some way, with the lower tiers generally being less important and then leading synergetically into the higher tiers. ("This makes my cast-time heals faster. This gives me a new healing spell. Then this next tier adds an additional effect to the healing spell." etc.)

In Mists of Pandaria, trainers have become redundant. You automatically gain new abilities in the field, complete with a little announcement about what you just learned, and if there is room on your main action bar, a new button will appear there. So far, so good. If there isn't any room, well... tough luck. Have fun looking through the entirety of your alphabetically sorted spellbook to see whether you can find something new. While the spells you haven't learned yet are sorted by level so that it's easy to see what's coming up next, there doesn't seem to be a way to easily see what you just learned after the fact if you missed the little announcement popping up.

And oh, are those announcements easy to miss. After all it's not unusual that you'll level up mid-combat, or even in the middle of a dungeon. So every time that happens, you have to sift through your whole spellbook again to find the one ability that's new. Except sometimes there isn't even anything, since you often don't get anything while levelling up in MoP, so after a while you stop bothering every time.

I remember healing a Cataclysm dungeon while levelling up and thinking: "Man, there is a lot of AoE damage going around here, I wish I had an AoE heal to deal with it. When do I get Wild Growth anyway?" As it turns out, I already had it, had had it for quite a few levels in fact. But as per the above, I had completely missed it. The only reason I found it at all was that I knew of its existence in advance and was expecting to get it. It was also only the other week, after about three weeks of being max-level, that I looked into my spellbook to find an ability called Genesis. When did I get that? What is it? Who knows.

Which brings me to the issue of specialisations in general. Decoupled from the talent tree interface, they've been left in this awkward space where they are different from generic class abilities, but don't get any space to explain themselves beyond the generic flavour text when you first pick your spec. So the tab on my spellbook that says "feral" contains both general druid and feral only abilities mixed together. While the ones limited to my current spec do have little text underneath that says "feral" for example, it's still a lot harder to keep track of what's what when it's all jumbled into one big list. You don't get any sense of progression, of how it all goes together. And the first time you respec, you'll probably be surprised by all the abilities that vanish, because you kinda thought they were part of your class kit, not your spec's.

I feel exhausted and confused again just re-reading this. While I had fun with the levelling content, the process of keeping up with my character's ability growth has been a royal pain in the butt. I really struggled with the fact that I had no agency whatsoever in training or choosing her abilities as she levelled up; they were just dumped on my head at random intervals with no explanation, whether it was welcome at the time or not. Even now, two months after returning to WoW, I feel vaguely uncomfortable and estranged from the character - and that's coming from someone who levelled multiple druids before!

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the glyph system. Do I even need to mention that by the time you get your first glyph slot, you won't even have ninety percent of the abilities that the various glyphs pertain to? I seem to recall leaving mine empty for quite a while simply because I wasn't given any even remotely useful options at the time.

It's just a massive headache.

27/01/2014

Speculating About Insta-90s

It's been confirmed that Warlords of Draenor will come with a free boost to level ninety for a single character - in fact, you'll get it even before the expansion actually comes out, as long as you pre-purchase. It's also pretty much a given by now that at some point afterwards, level ninety characters will become available for purchase as an out-of-game service, similar to server transfers and race changes.

Both Liore and Wilhelm have spent some time pondering this week which class they'd like to insta-level this way. I did a bit of thinking about it too, but the end result was pretty much that it's a moot question for me. It's kind of funny actually: before resubscribing in December, the idea of a free boost to ninety with Warlords of Draenor sounded great. I pretty much shared Nils' mindset: "let me skip the silly panda expansion, thanks". Now that I've actually played MoP though, I think that pandas aren't so bad, and I wouldn't mind levelling another character through Pandaria. And I don't inherently prefer endgame play to levelling, so it seems pointless to skip half the fun.

I've seen people suggest that you could use the boost to level up a class that you previously struggled to level up. In my case that would probably be the warlock. For all the alts that I made over the years, I still only have two warlocks: one is my bank alt on my old Horde server; the other was my very first alt ever, created back in late 2006, and he's only made it to level 44 during the last seven years. The thing is though, I don't think I've ever struggled with the class due to anything inherent to levelling it - 'locks just haven't "clicked" with me. I don't see that changing just because I suddenly have more buttons. So that would be another pointless boost.

I think I'll just save it in case some sort of rare and special opportunity arises where boosting a character to ninety would actually make sense for me. Like, I don't know, a sudden desire to raid with a friend on another server where I don't have any characters. I don't think it's likely to happen, but there you go.

What I find a lot more interesting is the question of how making insta-90s available for purchase will affect the game as a whole. I think from Blizzard's point of view it's going to be a big win, at least in the short term. It's going to be another thing that they can charge big bucks for on top of the subscription (can you really see a boost to ninety for an entirely new character being cheaper than transferring an existing one?), with the only downside being the risk that some people will cancel their subscriptions earlier than they otherwise would've done, purely due to this new feature. And I don't think there will be very many of them. I suspect there will be some players that will "binge" by buying multiple 90s and will thereby burn themselves out more quickly than they otherwise would've done if they had been slowed down by manually having to level each character, but I can't see them making up a significant portion of the player base.

The question of how insta-90s will affect the players is going to be a more difficult one to answer. I suspect that as a tool to get lapsed players to return and jump right into the new content it will be pretty successful - though how well those players will be retained after their first month will depend on how Warlords of Draenor actually plays.

There will also be new players for whom it will be a boon that allows them to jump right to a level where they can play with their friends' already max-level characters. Like the binge buyers, I don't think that this group will be all that sizeable however.

To most long-time players, I think it will be just another thing to spend money on that might give them brief joy, but that isn't really a game-changer in the long run. (I'm thinking of all the people I've known who've server-transferred, faction- and race-changed about half a dozen times by now.) Another character at ninety will sound great in theory, but in practice it will be just another toon to run dailies or raids with, and without having invested any time into levelling, I suspect that many players won't actually feel that attached to those new characters. It reminds me of when SoE announced that they were selling high-level characters for Everquest 2 last October. Several bloggers I read immediately jumped on the bandwagon there too, talking about how they always wanted to have a look at higher-level content in Everquest 2, how they had always been deterred by all that levelling and this was just the thing for them... just to abandon the idea after one or two play sessions.

There will be a dark side to the insta-90s too however: unless Blizzard puts some kind of restriction on who can buy them (which I doubt), people who are completely new to the game will buy them to play with the "cool kids" right away... and they will be terrible. I've seen people say that levelling doesn't teach anything to anybody anymore, and that anyone could pick up a new class at ninety and master it within the hour. That may be true for an experienced player, but for the truly new to the game... nope. I vaguely recall running a Drak'tharon Keep pug back in WOTLK with a paladin who seemed to have absolutely no clue what he was doing, what any of his buttons did, anything at all - and eventually he fessed up that he had just bought the character on ebay (or wherever). That's the kind of gamer we'll all see a lot more of once insta-90s become available for purchase. I'm not saying they'll be ubiquitous, but there'll be enough of them for it to be noticeable, and they'll make the worst players you've seen until now look like superstars in comparison. "You bought that character, didn't you" will become the new insult of choice for anyone who doesn't know how to play.

And randomly assembled groups will be worse than ever.

20/01/2014

Dailies, Dailies Everywhere

I saw people refer to MoP as "the expansion of dailies" soon after launch, and with several more content patches added since then, it's only become "worse". We've been running (what seems to me like) an absurd amount of dailies ever since we hit ninety, yet it feels like we've barely scratched the surface of all the different rep grinds.

The main one we've focused on so far have been the Tillers. Now, I'll hand it to Blizzard: these guys are fun. Growing your own little farm is fun, and by extension it's fun to work with the Tillers. Many of the tasks they give you are pretty mundane (getting a gift for someone, returning lost chickens, stomping marmots), but with the addition of personal reputation for several NPCs on top of the global faction reputation, you really feel like you're getting to know all these characters and it actually makes you care. Getting to improve and expand your farm as you get more involved with the Tillers community feels like a great reward and you can hardly wait to hit that next reputation level.

Second on our list have been the Anglers dailies, mainly because we like fishing. We ended up finding their quest hub early on as we kept fishing up some of the special fish that you can give to Nat Pagle as a daily and we couldn't wait to unlock the actual daily quests. If you get a good set they are also really quick to do, something like five minutes for three. Of course, then there are also days when you get asked to fish up eels, which can take fifteen minutes on its own, even if it does have the benefit of giving you an excuse to gather up some random fish.

The third hub that we've been trying to visit daily is Lion's Landing, for Operation: Shieldwall. Mostly we were intrigued by the fact that the map showed a flight path there which doesn't actually appear until you get started on the quest chain, so unlocking that was one incentive to have a look at it. The quests themselves aren't particularly inspiring, but they are nicely grouped up and we're keeping at it in hopes of seeing some worthwhile story advancement soon.

The only downside to the Shieldwall dailies that I've seen so far is that they give you a currency that doesn't go into the currency tab for some reason and thus takes up bag space. Oh, and we fell into the trap of spending some of said currency on those animal traps that start quests, and they ended up being horrible. I didn't think Blizzard even made quests with such atrocious drop rates anymore. And these are a daily? I don't know why anyone would bother.

The August Celestial dailies are something we haven't done every day so far, but we have done them occasionally. We have yet to get sent to help out the tiger, but so far our favourite is probably Niuzao's temple, as you basically do one round around the courtyard killing mobs and clicking on things and you're done.

A friend and ex-guildie also recommended that we go to the Isle of Thunder because it was supposed to be fun. Unfortunately unlocking the dailies there requires a whole chain of solo scenarios, which put quite a damper on our duo play. To be honest I don't get the point of solo scenarios, as I didn't see anything in there that would've made it a problem to do it in a group. It just resulted in an off-putting experience, forcing us to play apart instead of together for over an hour. And when we finally unlocked the dailies, they weren't that great either, making us do a lot of running back and forth through densely populated areas. To be honest, that whole island is just a depressing place, what with all the ruins and the perpetually terrible weather. Who'd want to hang out there for any length of time? We haven't been back since that first day.

We haven't even touched the Golden Lotus, the Shado-pan, the Klaxxi or the Order of the Cloud Serpent yet, and there are probably more that I'm forgetting (or haven't encountered yet). It honestly feels a bit overwhelming. The individual daily hubs we've seen so far are mostly very well designed, with just a small handful of quests that are close together and pretty fun to do, but after doing three or four of these hubs I've honestly had enough of them. In fact, I may already be doing too many dailies as it is, as I can kind of see the shadow of burnout looming in the distance. There is only so much daily-running that I can stomach, even if they are good dailies. Unfortunately alternative endgame activities seem to be kind of limited from what I can tell. I can definitely see where some of the criticisms of this expansion came from and I'm glad that I'm not in a position where I actually "need" any of these reputations for anything.

16/01/2014

The Timeless Isle Experience

One of the interesting things about returning to WoW after having missed a whole expansion's worth of patches is that once you hit max level, the amount of things to do seems almost overwhelming. We started dabbling in various dailies right away, but the thing that interested me the most was the Timeless Isle, so that's where we've been spending most of our time at ninety so far.

Basically, from what I'd heard about the Timeless Isle, it sounded like WoW's attempt at copying part of Guild Wars 2's fairly successful model to see how well their own playerbase liked it: No Very few quests to give direction, and hidden treasure chests and strong mobs with shared tagging mechanics everywhere. (Disclaimer: I've never played Guild Wars 2, so this assessment is just based on things I read about the game.)

Reception seems to have been kind of mixed from what I can tell. Sure, it's popular as the most recent thing "to do", but from what I've read people seem to either love it (for all the easy loot) or hate it (for its lack of direction and feeling pointlessly grindy).

Either way, it seemed like the best way to improve our gear quickly, and as a team of two the fact that mobs were a bit tougher didn't seem to pose a problem. In reality, we still did some dying, especially early on when we didn't know all the various mobs' abilities yet, but it wasn't too bad.

Let me make a list of things I've personally liked about the Timeless Isle so far and a list of things I haven't:

Like:

- The loot rush. I'm a bit hesitant to call gearing up via the Timeless Isle the path of least resistance, considering that some of the mobs put up a lot of resistance, but still... there is loot all over; it doesn't just drop from mobs. You might click on a random sparkle on the ground and come away with another purple piece. The first day you spend on the Timeless Isle as a fresh ninety, you'll come away from the experience with your character having vastly increased in power and it's intoxicating.

- It's busy. After how dead the game felt for most of our levelling up, it's refreshing to see an area that's genuinely busy at all times of day.

- Grouping is encouraged. I'm not a fan of the idea of shared tagging applying to everything, because that just encourages people to hit as many things as possible while hoping that someone else will put the actual work into killing them, but for special mobs I've been in favour of the mechanic for quite a while. It helps that most mobs are actually tough enough that receiving any kind of help is generally welcome.

- Since I score pretty high as an explorer, I quite enjoy the way you can just run around and find random things to click on. The achievement panel provides some direction in terms of listing things to do, but without giving too much away. While I'm sure there are very detailed guides out there for every aspect of the island, there's no real pressure to use them to "keep up" or anything like that.

- Chests are shared! I've blasted Blizzard in the past for making everything that requires picking things up from the ground extremely group-unfriendly, but as it turns out they do have the technology to not make your group mates hate you! When you loot a chest near a party member on the Timeless Isle, it instantly respawns for the other person so they can loot it as well. Of course that won't help you if the druid gets a plate piece from it while the warrior gets leather, but it's the thought that counts...

- I like that the wildlife on the island is of the types that you need to kill lots of for cooking ingredients anyway; it gives the whole process additional purpose.

Dislike:

- Coming down from the loot rush: The loot you get is random. On the first day, when pretty much everything is an upgrade, that doesn't matter and everything you find will seem amazing anyway. But once you've looted your seventh pair of leather shoulders while still sporting greens in most slots, the randomness quickly gets annoying, and after the rush of initial upgrades the whole process starts to feel grindy and unrewarding instead.

- It's too busy sometimes. Rare spawns die within seconds of appearing, and even with respawn timers that seem pretty short, it can be hard to get a hit in even with shared tagging. Chat is full of addon spam about how person X just killed Y mob, which most people won't really care about.

- A lot of deadly mob abilities feel annoyingly gimmicky. It's all about dodging out of the circle or cone on the ground because that's all the rage in the newfangled action MMOs now, so WoW's got to have it too, whether that makes sense within the rest of the game or not. Whatever happened to those things called interrupts? Oh, they don't work on ninety percent of mob abilities, for no real reason.

- As far as grouping goes, there is working together and "working together". The zergs that form against the stronger rares are more of the latter. Sure, you all share the goal of wanting to kill the mob, but other than that it's every man and woman for themselves, meaning that people will make the mobs jump and twitch carelessly, which leads to whole groups of other players getting one-shot by things like conal abilities. In small doses it's kind of funny, but mostly it just makes me long for being part of a proper co-ordinated group where I don't have to worry about other people being more of a danger than a help.

- After a few days I already find myself getting a bit bored of the island. Coming down from the loot rush (see above) has been disappointing, and after that just killing things over and over for rep and coins seems a bit boring, especially since the island isn't actually very large.

13/01/2014

Levelling Through Southern Pandaria

Sorry, I couldn't think of a nice alliterative title including "Valley of the Four Winds" and/or "Krasarang Wilds", so I gave up on that particular little game.

While I had received some recommendations about which zones to prioritise in terms of story, my pet tank and I had decided long ago that we were going to do ALL THE QUESTS anyway, so we might as well just follow the natural zone progression as it happened.

This meant that our next stop after the Jade Forest was the Valley of the Four Winds. It's quite a beautiful and serene zone, though the wildlife messed with my head a little. Previously the game conditioned me to expect certain mobs to be hostile and others to be neutral, but in Pandaria those expectations all seem to get turned on their heads, as I keep running into things like peaceful crocolisks while getting mauled by swarms of aggressive moths and hostile birds.

Anyway, the quests were reasonably entertaining but honestly a bit dull at the start. Help this farmer. Now help that farmer. Now help another farmer. Didn't I already do some variation of all of this in Elwynn Forest back in 2006? Chen Stormstout and his niece Li Li made for amusing company though, and things picked up as we progressed through the zone.

Then we got to Halfhill and learned about Pandaren cooking. Yikes! I like cooking, but this whole system with the different ways seems unnecessarily complicated to me. Then again, maybe I'm just jaded, knowing full well that this is another convoluted system whose only purpose seems to be to provide busywork for one expansion and which will be swept under the rug and circumvented completely once Warlords of Draenor comes out.

Also, we got a farm! I thought that I had read somewhere that you couldn't unlock your personal farm until level ninety, but either Blizzard has changed that since then or I misread and what I was reading was only referring to some features being unavailable until max level. We just kind of stumbled across the whole thing by accident as we were doing the regular quests around Halfhill, and it turned out to be pretty fun. The farm is one of those features that I'd heard nothing but good things about, and I can already tell that it really is a fun little mini-game.

Once we hit level eighty-eight, we also decided to try and duo the first two Pandaria dungeons, Temple of the Jade Serpent and Stormstout Brewery. The former didn't give us any major trouble, but where duoing instances had started to feel kind of slow in Cata, doing so in Pandaria was like wading through molasses. Just killing the Sha of Doubt must have taken us something like fifteen minutes. Stormstout Brewery was even worse, and some of the trash leading up to the last boss in that one gave us serious trouble as well. We eventually managed to down it with a mixture of kiting and quick corpse-running, but when the last boss wiped us within a minute with some bubble ability, we were too dejected to keep trying. We just did it again through the dungeon finder, and with some proper dps it was a piece of cake - though funnily enough, the boss didn't blow any bubbles at all that time around.

After the Valley of the Four Winds we continued to Karasang Karasarang Krasarang Wilds, which ended up being kind of the opposite of the previous zone for me in so far as I thought that the first hub was really fun, but after that it quickly devolved into a series of boring kill-and-gather quests. The saving grace came in the form of a quest that sent us back to the Valley at the end and which I thought was just a breadcrumb to direct you there in case you had gone to Krasarang first, but actually it turned out to be a full-blown little chain that tied up the stories of both zones in one epic finale. That was some seriously good stuff.

After the Stormstout Brewery we gave up on trying to duo any more dungeons while levelling and just queued for some randoms, which got us into both Shadow-Pan Monastery and Gate of the Setting Sun so far. Fortunately they were easy enough to understand even without having done the lead-up quests to them. We also found them reasonably challenging in our gear and actually wiped once in each.

We hit ninety after having completed three zones worth of quests as well as five Pandaria dungeons, just as we were entering Kun-Lai Summit. In a way 85-90 took us longer than I had expected, but looking at our pre-Panaria levelling for comparison, our levelling speed didn't actually slow down that much. I guess I just expected the last five levels to have been nerfed even more than they have, knowing how Blizzard does these things...