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...

09/01/2014

Interlude: Duoing Old Raids

It's not all about levelling.

Unlike me, my pet tank was never a raider when he played WoW previously, so he expressed interest in going back to look at some old raids once we were of a high enough level to do them with just the two of us. It's been a pretty interesting experience so far, with him getting to see many zones for the first time and me getting to indulge in nostalgia by boring him with stories of just how much of a pain in the arse this or that boss used to be back in the day. Here's a list of which raids we've done so far in order of raid progression, which is not necessarily the order in which we actually completed them:

Molten Bore Core: Okay, this was one was pretty boring as it was "before my time" so to speak (as I didn't start raiding until Burning Crusade) and I didn't have a lot of stories to tell beyond some vague memories of the Hydraxian Waterlords and needing special water to douse the flaming runes. We did have some fun failing at killing Core Hound packs simultaneously for a while, but other than that it was a pretty boring-looking instance with fairly boring bosses.

Blackwing Lair: The transition from Molten Core to Blackwing Lair always fascinates me because it's just such a complete change of pace in terms of how complicated the mechanics are; I can only imagine how much of a pain that must have been for raiders back in the day. Razorgore is pretty much the perfect boss to duo these days though, with one person using the orb and the other killing everything. He also gave us our first pet drop, an Unscathed Egg, which was won by me.

Vaelastrasz was the first boss to give us trouble, as we first tried him at level eighty-one or so and found that we couldn't get him down before he cast Burning Adrenaline twice, thus killing both of us. With proper cooldown usage we eventually managed to down him anyway, as I cast a quick battle res on my tank after he died, so that he was still alive when the boss finally keeled over. When we came back a second time at eighty-six, Vael didn't even get a single Adrenaline cast off before going down.

During our first visit we were also stopped dead by Ebonroc, as we couldn't outdamage his self-healing and my pet tank wasn't keen on trying a possibly long and drawn-out tank swapping strategy with me in bear form. Again, once we came back at eighty-six he gave us no problems whatsoever, and all the bosses after him also fell in quick succession.

Karazhan: Not much to say about this one other than that it was very easy. After all the trouble I remembered having trying to solo the chess event, I was grateful to have another person to help with keeping the king out of the fire though. Pet Tank also commented that the trash looked like it must have been a nightmare back in the day.

Gruul's & Magtheridon's Lair: These were also fairly boring once we sufficiently overpowered them, though it was interesting to note that High King Maulgar and his posse, as well as Mag's trash could still rack up a significant amount of damage due to the sheer amount of effects and debuffs they've got going on.

Serpentshrine Cavern: Ahh, a raid that was much beloved by me in Burning Crusade, and not just because of the mad end fight! The first five bosses gave us no real trouble, except for Karathress' minions being a bit of a pain when they were all piled up on top of each other with all their different effects and abilities (similar to the Maulgar fight). Vashj on the other hand was going to be a different kettle of fish (pun intended). I had a hunch that they had removed the tainted core's ability to root you, but other than that I wasn't sure whether the fight had been nerfed significantly in terms of mechanics, and the answer seemed to be no. Our first attempt went hilariously badly as I was atrocious at killing the regular elementals and chasing down the tainted ones before they despawned, so by the time we finally freed Vashj herself she was up to eighty stacks of empowerment. I was impressed that it still took us a little while to die! On our second attempt things went much more smoothly, but we then wiped in phase three as Pet Tank kept getting stunned in puddles of green goo and I couldn't provide him with enough healing as feral. After I went resto for our third try, we managed to overcome that obstacle too (and incidentally, Moonfire spam is actually not a bad way of killing the elementals either).

The Eye: After the trouble we had with Vashj, I knew that Kael wasn't going to be a slouch either, and I was right. The other three bosses were once again easy enough, and Solarian even dropped a little voidwalker pet that was won by my pet tank. Just like back in the day, Kael started off easy enough as well, but the phase with all the advisors up at once was just a giant mess. With only two people to eat all the various debuffs, we were basically in a state of constantly being punted around the room while stunned, disoriented, feared and on fire all at the same time, which soon led to our demise. For our next attempt I respecced resto once again and made sure to loot and equip the Staff of Disintegration to at least save us from some of all the disruptive effects - which was fine until phase four, when Kael started mind-controlling me over and over again to heal him and made me get up to all kinds of shenanigans, which once again led to a wipe. I wasn't sure whether there was any way of getting around that other than going in solo, but fortunately I found a video online that showed that simple line of sight prevents the mind control, so I just spent most of that phase standing behind a pillar, which eventually led us to victory.

Anyone got an idea up to what level old raids will be solo-/duoable once we are ninety? I'm guessing that some Cata bosses will be manageable, but probably not all of them...

06/01/2014

Jolly in Jade Forest

(Sorry, I've been having way too much fun with alliterative post titles lately.)

So, shortly after hitting level eighty-five, our Worgen duo was off to Pandaria, which was finally going to be new content for both of us. The expansion didn't exactly make the best first impression, considering that the continent's loading screen is possibly the ugliest thing ever (seriously, who wants to look at these Mogu things all the time?), but the Jade Forest itself drew us in quite quickly.

We're both the sort of player who likes to go off the rails every now and then, so we had fun right away by sitting down on a rock and fishing in the middle of a war zone, which promptly rewarded us with some quest items which we're apparently supposed to take to another, higher-level zone. Speaking of random fun, I was also very pleased to see the increased attention that has been given to rare mobs, both by making them more interesting to fight and making them visible on the mini-map, so they are easier to spot even without add-ons. We ran into two at our level, as well as into several Zandalari warscouts. We knew that it was probably a bad idea to engage the latter, seeing how they were five levels higher than us, but we were too curious not to at least give it a try. Let's just say that we went splat very quickly - though we also vowed to come back when we're higher level to get some revenge.

The actual quests in the area were sufficiently fun and varied, though I really wish that Blizzard would take a leaf out of SWTOR's book and make questing in a group less of a hassle. It wasn't too bad in Jade Forest at least, but there just doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to whether certain quest drops and updates are shared or not, and "picking things up from the ground" type quests are always a pain because the game doesn't let you share loot from the ground, ever.

The new quest reward system took some getting used to as well. At first I missed the option of getting to choose between several different items, even if most of them probably wouldn't have been useful for my class, but that feeling quickly went away as I was happy to just watch the upgrades roll in. The one thing I didn't like, and more importantly, which I absolutely do not understand, is how some quests will allow you to choose between rewards for different specs but most of them will only show you the item for your current one. Having to switch specs before handing in a quest every time I want a piece for my off-spec just feels extremely clunky.

My impression of the Jade Forest story can probably be summed up as: pandas aren't so bad, but my faction kind of sucks. I was never a rabid hater of the pandaren, but I wasn't all that keen on them either when they were first announced. Travelling around Jade Forest however, I found interacting with the panda NPCs quite enjoyable, as they were whimsical and funny without being over the top. They also didn't seem to scare easily - I was most amused by a quest to free some trapped miners, who then just went on to talk about how "they were just lying down - under rocks, obviously" or how they'd have to tell their children about how exciting the whole experience had been.

The few Alliance-centric quests were generally a lot less impressive however. Some of the NPCs were likable and amusing, but on the whole it seems to me that the Alliance is following the Horde's example of becoming more and more aggressive and militaristic in a way that feels off-putting and strangely modern, which is not particularly fitting for the setting in my personal opinion. Yes, WoW has never really been high fantasy and has always had steampunk influences, but when your introduction to the zone consists of machine-gunning down orcs from a helicopter, I kind of feel like I've fired up the wrong game.

The one bright influence on the Alliance story was Anduin, whom I already loved in Cata and who just continues to be adorable and amusing in his priestly ways. My favourite bit was the cut scene where he mind-controlled a friendly NPC to create a distraction. Genius! It always bugs me when NPCs are portrayed as completely different from player characters in what they can and can't do, so it's nice to see the writers make good use of abilities that you would expect a priest to have when working on Anduin's scenes.

The one thing I'm not so sure about is that the zone still felt very linear, which would be a problem for replayability, just as it was in Cata. The first two hubs at least felt heavily railroaded, though the map opened up a lot after that and we were given the option to do a variety of sub-zones in a different order. There was still an overarching story to the area however, so I'm not sure whether all that choice was just an illusion and you still need to do everything to be able to witness the zone's climatic event, or whether the side-quests are genuinely non-essential.

03/01/2014

Cruising Through Cata

Up until level eighty, our levelling experience was mostly a pleasant nostalgia trip, even if there were some disappointments along the way. Cataclysm was going to be a slightly different matter however, as it was the expansion that originally led to both of us quitting the game.

"Which zone(s) are we going to do?" I asked. "Not that we have much of a choice... but I'm still feeling burnt out on pretty much all of them. With the way Cata questing worked, you had to do at least part of each zone to unlock all the portals, reputations etc., and with all the alts I had, I must have done most of them half a dozen times in total."

"Hey, I only did them once each," replied my pet tank, "and I hated them the first time."

We eventually agreed on doing Mount Hyjal in full, plus whatever intros we needed to do to unlock at least the portals to the other four zones, which fortunately wasn't too much. Mount Hyjal wasn't too painful either - though the loot we got from completing the whole thing certainly helped. All throughout Outland and Northrend we had struggled to keep our gear up to date, due to a mix of weird and now outdated gear itemisation and the devs seemingly "forgetting" about certain classes and specs when it came to quest rewards and dungeon drops. After a full tour of Mount Hyjal on the other hand I finally had a level-appropriate piece of gear for both of my specs in every single slot for the first time in a long time.

Once we'd acquired a few quest rewards to boost our stats, we set out to two-man Blackrock Caverns. It went very smoothly once again, more so than I expected... but it also felt quite slow. After eighty levels of all of our abilities being way overpowered for their purpose (it was telling when we duelled in Northrend once and my tanking friend literally one-shot me with a Shield Slam), health pools were finally starting to scale and it took a while to chew through things with no dps. So we decided to brave the dungeon finder for the first time since Sunken Temple to speed things up. (The promise of justice points for doing a random helped as well.)

It went reasonably well and we ended up running randoms for a large chunk of our Cata levelling stretch. We met two bad apples in total, a mage and a death knight who both had a tendency to charge ahead and make suicidal pulls when people weren't ready, but everyone else seemed nice enough, and if not chatty, then at least co-operative. In Vortex Pinnacle pet tank had to unexpectedly go AFK at one point, and when I said in chat not to worry because our tank would be back soon, the dps immediately asked whether he was my pet tank, which made me laugh. In Halls of Origination we ended up with a group where pretty much everyone said that they'd only just come back to the game recently and were still traumatised by Cata heroics.

In the end, the five levels flew by even more quickly than either of the previous expansions, and while we were grateful in a way, it also made keeping our professions up to date even more of a pain than usual, with seventy-five skill points crammed into only five levels. We hit eighty-five while doing the intro to Twilight Highlands, which led to the rather odd combination of us getting the Pandaria intro cut scene about Anduin having gone missing at the same time as we were escorting him around Stormwind. I also thought I'd briefly jump into Tol Barad for nostalgia's sake and was booted off the PvP island for being "too low level". What the hell? I take it they raised it to level ninety then or something? Rather jarring to be excluded from that now when it used to be level eighty-five content.

Anyway, so much for Cata. Expect first impressions of Pandaria soon!

01/01/2014

Wrapping Up Wrath

After we burned through the entirety of Burning Crusade's level range in about two days, I should have known that Wrath wouldn't take very long either. I couldn't quite believe it though, because somehow I still remembered seventy to eighty as this massive slog, and I figured that Wrath of the Lich King wouldn't have quite as many dungeons to keep us busy either.

In truth, it only took us another two days or so to get through that stretch of content as well, and the only thing that felt slow was moving across Northrend. It's still huge, and neither of us were able to afford fast flying yet, which meant that transportation was a bit of a drag. Still, when we weren't trying to get from Howling Fjord to Boring Borean Tundra and back, we were making swift progress. Quest-wise we only did Howling Fjord and about two thirds of Sholazar Basin; the rest of our XP came from gathering experience and two-manning dungeons - and while there were fewer of them, there were still enough for us not to need to repeat anything.

Initially I was a bit disappointed that we still didn't seem to have any trouble two-manning things. Wrath instances were never particularly hard, but I recalled the normal ones being at least a little bit of a challenge initially, especially when you were coming into them with sub-par gear. But no, even with mid-level Outlands gear, the two of us cleared everything up to Drak'tharon Keep with no problems.

Old Kingdom was the biggest disappointment to me personally, though not because of the difficulty. First off, they redesigned the quests to guide you straight past the optional boss, à la Gnomeregan. Not just that though, they also removed the little bonus quest you used to be able to get in the cave with the mushrooms. Mustn't reward people for straying off the main path, oh no! It was a funny quest too: if I recall correctly, you gathered all these "interesting" looking samples from the elementals and then the Nerubian you handed them to gave you a bit of an odd look because they were essentially elemental poop and worthless. The worst thing was the final boss though, as they changed the insanity mobs into generic red blobs that didn't seem to have any abilities whatsoever! Was that mechanic really that confusing as it was? Killing lookalikes of your party members was what made that fight fun! Le sigh.

When we hit seventy-five halfway through Drak'tharon Keep, I put a Glyph of the Treant into my third minor glyph slot and spent the rest of the instance bouncing around like a loony. It was so nice to be an ugly little tree again! I still remember the "save the trees" parade I observed at the end of Wrath. And I have to admit that making it a minor glyph is actually a great solution, as you can keep the look if you want it, or drop out whenever you feel like it, without incurring any practical penalties either way.

Gundrak was the first dungeon where we ran into a genuine challenge, as we couldn't kill the first boss and his adds fast enough before they cocooned both of us and we got hopelessly overwhelmed. Eventually we succeeded by having me switch to my feral spec and going for a quick burn before he even had a chance to summon any adds.

In Halls of Stone we had a funny moment when I DCed and died during the Brann fight, and thanks to talents and self-healing, pet tank managed to stay alive long enough for me to not only come back online but also run all the way back into the room where he was fighting. During the NPC conversation afterwards I also had the embarrassing realisation that I've been spelling vrykul wrong for a whole five years - for some reason I always thought that the r and y were the other way round ("vyrkul").

The Oculus was the next instance that turned out to be a major challenge, as our gear was crappy and the drakes only had the absolute minimum amount of health. After a couple of failed attempts on Eregos we eventually managed to get him down by having pet tank circle-kite him on a red drake, spamming his main ability to do damage and get rid of the whelps, and occasionally using his dodge (especially whenever the boss enraged). Meanwhile I sat on top of the boss on a green drake and alternated between focusing on dpsing him and casting heals on the red drake as needed. With the kiting the damage on the drakes was manageable, though it was a very long and slow fight with no bronze drakes to do proper dps.

Trial of the Champion was also pretty tough, and not just because the jousting was quite a drag with only two people. Argent Confessor Paletress did absolutely nasty damage, especially to me, since she does a lot of non-aggro-based attacks and I was the only target that wasn't the tank. I'm not sure I would have been able to survive being feared around and smited as much had I been playing any other healing class, without the druid's heals over time ticking away whenever I was incapacitated.

The ICC five-mans were interesting as well. Again, the bosses in there had a lot more mechanics than previous ones, and I basically had to deal with everything at once since there was nobody else to do so. I always had to kill my soul fragment on my own on Bronjahm; I always had mirrored soul on the Devourer of Souls. On the last boss of Pit of Saron, I was almost constantly incapacitated or transferring damage and healing to the boss, which made for a very long and touch-and-go encounter. Halls of Reflection actually defeated us initially, as we didn't quite have the dps to make the fourth wall, but we came back once we had upgraded our gear a little and made it without problems after that.

We were level eighty-one by the time we moved on into Cata content.