Tuesday, November 24, 2009

WotLK - a year later

What a lot has transpired in the year since WotLK was released. Doesn’t it seem like such a long time ago? A year ago I was at Gamestop with my wife at midnight picking up our copies of WotLK, and I stayed up all night creating and leveling my DK through the starter area and into Outlands. In as much as I truly liked the starter area, and enjoyed the experience I was playing my Elemental Shaman at the time for raiding purposes, and had to halt progression on my DK the following morning to get back to leveling the Shaman for Naax raiding. It only took me about 10 days to hit 80 on my Shaman and start running the level 80 dungeons for some gear. And by mid-late November we all found ourselves in Naax, getting back into the swing of raiding. I wasn’t having all that much fun though because quite honestly I wasn’t enjoying Elemental all that much. In BC I was enhancement, but the raid needed me as ranged. I was also chomping at the bit to play my DK, and my break would come in late November when one of our raid members decided to leave and we found ourselves needing anther melee to replace him. I took the opportunity to drop the Shaman, and switch over to the DK who I had been stealing hours here and there to level and gear. And I’ve been raiding on him until just this last week when I finally made the decision to switch to my Paladin.

It certainly wasn’t that I don’t like the DK class, because if you look back through my blog for the past year I think you will find that I do. Ultimately there were two issues that I think sealed the fate of my DK for me, the first being the constant nerfs to the class. There have been a tremendous amount of nerfs over the past year, that were quite literally carried out over the course of every single patch that we’ve seen since release night. I can’t remember a single patch that didn’t have some kind of nerf to one ability or another. The main mechanics of the class have remained largely the same, but in total you are essentially playing a different class today than what you created on Nov 20 2008. I think I’ve been vocal enough about my disdain for how Blizzard carries out this kind of “class balance”, yet that isn’t the core reason I decided I wanted to switch. It really had more to do with my bent toward hybrid classes. I like greater flexibility and versatility than the DK class gave me so I started playing my Druid again over the Spring and Summer. As I love to PVP and heal I started thinking about getting back into PVP healing and a friend suggested I try out a Paladin instead of my Druid for that. I’d had plenty of experience healing with my Druid in BC, but had never played a Paladin before, so in May I rolled the Paladin and leveled him up very quickly. Believe it or not though, after I got to level 80 I decided I wasn’t all that taken with Ret, and it was disturbing to be so immobile as a healer after spending as much time healing on my Druid as I had done. So I shelved him and spent more time on my Druid, which I’ve recounted enough here on these pages. I started looking at my Paladin again and would you know that Ret had really begun to grow on me. And now I am definitely a proponent of Paladin healing. In fact I prefer it for PVE.

Beside my personal character foibles and travails, there has been a tremendous amount that has happened in and to the game as well. It was understood that Blizzard was going to be taking a slightly different tact with WotLK, from what they had taken with BC. Yet WotLK had a familiar feeling to it on release night. I still think it feels familiar to what we had in BC overall, but all the small things that have gone off in different directions add up. I think Blizzard has taken the game too far to the easy side of the spectrum and that has affected an overall sense of the game for the player base. That’s something I never would have thought a year ago, but now it’s something I think about a great deal.

PVP is probably the one area of the game that is least different from what we had at the end of BC. Though with two new battlegrounds, and the new Wintergrasp pvp zone in Northrend, the familiar grind for honor to buy PVP gear is exactly the same as it was in BC. Arena play is also largely the same as it was at the end of BC, with the same comps being variously effective in one season or another. Arena’s on the other hand have been a constant driver behind class and ability changes. If you look back over the course of the past year and look at all the various class changes, you can see the multitude that had their impetus in Arena play. Something I disdain and have been fairly vocal about at various points.

Raiding, on the other hand, is something that I think started off somewhat philosophically different than we had in BC and has continued to diverge from there. Blizzard took on the task of enabling greater access to raid content for more people in WotLK, which I whole-heartedly support. But as the months wore on, and Blizzard also made the decision to reward Emblems of Conquest, and them Emblems of Triumph from daily heroics, anyone and everyone could gain high level gear easily and quickly. The problem with that isn’t necessarily that it enables people to get the gear in the first place, but rather that it cheapens the experience of getting it. There is very little effort required to get a full set of Tier gear now and at the end of the day, after you are fully geared, what then? It’s a question a lot of people, including myself, have been asking themselves lately. In BC you had a strong linear progression that required a good deal of effort to get through, but which rewarded you well with upgrades that were significantly more powerful than what you had previously. Now the linear progression is not so linear, and the upgrades from one tier to another are very small. I skipped over T9 232 gear entirely for my Death Knight, who was outfitted in T8 gear from Ulduar because it wasn’t worth the expense of gemming and enchanting. Instead I waited until I had enough trophies and emblems to get the T9 245 gear instead. For newly minted level 80’s there is no reason to run the older raid instances, and you probably won’t have to care about the lower level emblems and emblem gear beyond an odd piece here and there because you can pick up a couple T9 pieces after running a couple weeks worth of daily heroics and get into an TOC-10 or 25 and work from there.

Say what you will about the relative ease of raid content now, but I don’t think anyone would argue with the assessment that the loot tables for hard mode encounters is tiny compared to the effort required to complete it. Under the current system, where all raiders are more or less afforded an opportunity to see entire raid instances, and the only real thing separating hard-core raiders from the more casual raider are the hard modes, the hard core raider is still going to get a preponderance of their gear from the normal loot tables. In Ulduar, hard modes were activated on a per-boss basis, which rewarded the players with extra loot. In TOC it’s somewhat different in that the Heroic versions of 25-man and 10-man are the hard modes. The loot is all the same, but upgraded to higher item levels. I think Blizzard was on the right track with that implementation, however they’ve indicated they’re going to revert to the system they used in Ulduar for Icecrown, taking us back to the question whether the rewards are substantial enough to meet the level of effort required to get them.

One of the saddest aspects of raiding now is how much of the player base that feels it’s lackluster. I’d commented on the blog recently how on my server (and others) top notch raid guilds were calling it quits. That might have occurred in BC with an occasional announcement by a guild here and there, but in the past year we’ve seen many guilds call it quits and it seems to be increasing recently. I haven’t lost my drive to raid, and my desire to see all the content, but I’ve begun to think more and more lately that Blizzard made a mistake with the emblem rewards from heroics. People need challenges. With the state of raiding now and the lack of real challenge for the average person, I wonder what is going to hold the multitude of players here in WoW. It certainly isn’t going to be Cataclysm. Even I, who is a true lover of this game, thought that Cataclysm was somewhat lame. If I am thinking about other games, it’s a sign that something is really wrong in WoW and I just don’t see Blizzard addressing the issues behind that.

Outside of PVP and raiding, the rest of the pieces that make up WoW are still largely the same as it was a year ago. The leveling experience is very similar to what we had in BC, and has remained exactly as it was established a year ago. In fact, I’d say WotLK is the high water mark that future expansions need to meet. There isn’t a single aspect of the leveling experience that I’d point to and say needed to be changed. Professions continue to follow the model established last year, with no outlandish advantages given to any. Unlike in BC, where blacksmiths, leatherworkers, and tailors had tremendous advantages over characters that did not have those profession, Blizzard decided to level the playing field somewhat. Professions now have smaller advantages, and the advantages between the professions are relatively equal. Not a great deal has changed, if you could truly say there are any real changes.

Daily quests are the last aspect I wanted to touch on, and those are largely the same as what we saw a year ago as well, though perhaps taking on a more centralized theme recently. I can remember thinking how annoying it was to have to travel as much as we did at WotLK launch to get your 25 daily quests completed. That changed with the introduction of the Argent Tournament, which served as a large central hub for questing, and it looks like Blizzard is going to carry that forward with the release of patch 3.3. There will be a new, large, quest hub in Icecrown to earn all that cold hard gold you’ll be needing for those upgrades that are soon to follow.

To make a long story short, WoW is in many respects a game that has yet to find it’s way in the past year. It’s new continuous morphing and updating is often disconcerting, yet something that is now more or less predictable in that respect. It’s still a very fun game, yet I don’t think it still commands the gaming market like it once did, and perhaps only remains atop the gaming market because no other truly good games have been released to date. I’ll still be here a year from now, but I am for the first time in my five years of playing, just how much I’ll be around and how much I’ll still feel WoW is the only game for me.