Cataclysm in Review: Five-Man Dungeons

The five-man dungeon has been a staple of WoW since its inception, so it’s no surprise it features heavily in Cataclysm. Cataclysm’s five-man experience is bolstered by a couple points: well-designed encounters (as well as the encounters can be designed within the confines of the game’s mechanics) and the dungeon finder.

The Dungeon Finder

I should be quick to bring notice to the fact that the dungeon finder is not a product of Cataclysm. It was actually implemented in the last content patch of Wrath of the Lich King. But the system clearly factors into the quality of the five-man experience in Cataclysm. No longer do you have to troll general or trade chat to get a group together. Nor do you have to hope your guildies aren’t sick running five-mans everyday. You just bring up the dungeon finder, select any applicable roles (tank, healer or damage), and queue up. And because the system puts players from different realms together, the likelihood of there being enough people to fill a group for a specific instance is rather high, and the group is usually filled quickly.

The only real issue is role availability. Tanks and healers, even though they each only make up one-fifth of a group, are almost always in high demand. So, if you’ve queued as DPS, you can expect to wait for forty minutes before it’s your turn to be placed in a group with the tanks and healers.

Of course, the dungeon finder also doesn’t guarantee you’ll be given a quality group, though it usually does a good job making sure the group is diverse enough not to fail on composition alone. But trolling general or trade chat didn’t guarantee a solid group, either. There’s always a chance you’ll get a player who doesn’t know what he or she is doing. And if that person is the tank or healer, you’re probably in trouble. In this case, you can always initiate a vote to kick someone if they are under-skilled or poorly geared for any given dungeon.

Overall, the dungeon finder is a godsend. It is what WoW’s five-man dungeon system had needed for years. You no longer have to wait hours to gather a group when a five-man becomes less popular. The rewards given for queuing and completing a random heroic (valor or justice points, equivalent to badges in Wrath) means any five-man will still be run, even after the actual gear it drops is outdated for most end-game players. Gearing up your alts is also less frustrating, because groups are more readily available.

The biggest positive the dungeon finder brings to the game has to be at the beginning of an expansion. You don’t have to queue solo for the system. You can queue with any number of people. So you can grab five guildies, queue for a random heroic, and you’ll be there instantly. And once you’re done with that instance? You can queue for another. So you can chain-run instances, without any travel or instance lockouts eating into your playing time. And if you lose a person and can’t find a guildie to replace them, you can just queue with your remaining four and fill the last slot with a pick-up.

Does this make the world and on-server player interaction less meaningful? In some ways, sure. But so what. WoW is a game. I think people get a good feel for the game world when they level through the outdoor zones. There’s no need to require us to travel every time we want to do an instance. Suspension of belief is enough for me if it means more enjoyable game play and less boring tasks like travel. And when it comes to player interaction, I’ve often found as many negatives as positives. Besides, you’re more likely to find a better group by running with people you know than solo queuing through the dungeon finder. So social interaction is still beneficial.

The Dungeons

Other than the dungeon finder and its implications, basic dungeon design hasn’t changed much since TBC. You have your normal five-mans and your heroics. Heroics are meant for the end-game. They are more difficult than their normal counter-parts and they drop better loot. It’s a rather simple concept Blizzard has employed for a while now.

Encounter Design & Quality

The main difference in Cataclysm is in the quality of the encounter design. The five-man boss fights in Cataclysm have seen an increase in quality over its predecessors. More raid-like mechanics are used than were used in times past. And some of them are rather unique. For example, Altairus in the Vortex Pinnacle has an element of wind direction that plays into its design. When you are facing against the wind, you suffer a haste debuff. When you have your back to the wind, you receive a huge haste buff. And because the wind changes direction periodically, you’re encouraged to continually shift positions. But you have to dodge the whirlwinds floating around the room. If you get knocked off the platform by one, you’re probably going to die. Furthermore, the boss does a frontal breath attack, so, even though the tank probably wants the haste buff to keep up on threat, he or she has to be wary of doing more damage to the group than the healer can handle.

Only a small number of encounters are poorly designed in a sense that they don’t challenge players in same way as the example noted above. This is unlike a lot of the encounters in Wrath’s early five-mans, where you could just stand there and eat everything a boss throws out for half the fights. Of course, at this stage in Cataclysm, that’s no longer the case for some of these mechanics. With Firelands-level gear, a lot of players now have enough stamina to survive some of these mechanics that would have otherwise killed them in the first few months. But people definitely took longer to reach this point than in the encounters of Wrath’s early five-mans, and some of Cataclyms’s are still dangerous even now.

Dungeon Aesthetics

The dungeon aesthetic in Cataclysm is only slightly higher in quality than it was in Wrath. The quality of the voice acting and the music is the same. But the actual art is a step up from what was seen in Wrath’s earlier efforts. And this is mostly because I think the art team has improved their work on the cavernous and open-air parts of dungeons. But if you were to compare them to the Icecrown five-mans added in 3.3, the quality is roughly the same (except for the music being better than the music used in the Forge of Souls).

Story Presentation & Lore

Where the dungeons begin to falter is in the presentation of their story and lore. While a few of the dungeons are pretty well-connected to their parental zones, a lot of them are insular and have no interesting ways to present us with their backstory. For example, while I’m sure a lot of people love the whimsy found in the Blackrock Caverns, with Raz’s battlecry of “RAZ SMASH,” it doesn’t actually offer much else. While its relation to the bigger picture is evident, there’s no interesting character to guide you along or provide you with any insight into its plot or lore. No one like Vaelastrasz in Lower Blackrock Spire. No one like Jaina (as emotional as she is) in the three Icecrown five-mans. The story being told in BRC is superficial, and its overall presentation is uninteresting. Sure, the encounters aren’t bad, so it’s at least enjoyable to play through the first few times (and that’s important). But there’s hardly anything going for it when it comes to its story.

To be fair, I must acknowledge Catacylsm’s dungeons that have at least one point of decent plot development:

  • The Throne of the Tides — You finally get to confront Ozumat, that giant cephalopod that sunk your ship, and Lady Naz’jar, who led the naga assault on Neptulon at the Abyssal Breach. Neptulon himself also plays a role.
  • The Lost City of the Tol’vir — You get to confront Siamat, that conniving wind lord who granted the Neferset their newfound powers to oppose the Tol’vir of Ramkahen.
  • The Deadmines — The shadowy figure who plays a role in many of the new Westfall quests is finally revealed at the end of the Deadmines.

I can’t actually say much about Shadowfang Keep, because I haven’t played through Silverpine Forest with a low-level Horde character. I assume at least one of the bosses from the instance plays a role in the zone, but I could be wrong, so I don’t want to officially list it. I do wish the worgen would have played a more prominent role in introducing the dungeon to players of the Alliance. Maybe I missed it, but I don’t remember any of them telling me, “Hey, you know that guy Arugal? The one who brought this curse upon us? You know that keep he holed himself up in? The one in Silverpine? Maybe we should go back to investigate, and see if we can gain further insight into the creatures who infected us with this curse. Maybe we should see if Arugal left behind something that could lead to a cure.” Maybe it was there, but I don’t remember it.

Replayability

Though the five-mans are a bit higher in quality than their Wrath of the Lich King counterparts, the five-mans still become stale too fast. They do have some replay value, but most of it comes by way of perfecting them. After that, I get this feeling like I never want to see them ever again. Even if I play through them with a different class, I still feel this way. Then I consider something like Zul’Aman. The first time through, you have to learn the encounters. But after that, you can focus on racing the clock and obtaining the mount by killing the first four bosses before all of the NPCs are executed. This gives the dungeon a much higher replay value than most. But that’s ruined by the fact that the dungeon is essentially the same as it was back in TBC, only retooled so five people can do it. And since I did the place a billion times in TBC, I was already sick of it. (Recycling content is an issue in and of itself, one I’ve already beat to death when discussing Naxxramas.)

I suppose achievements are meant to add to the replayability of each dungeon. But many of Cataclysm’s dungeon achievements are so annoying they fail to make the experience enjoyable. If not for the fact that my early dungeon group had completed so many achievements accidentally, we probably wouldn’t have bothered doing them all. There’s an amount of enjoyment I get from racing the clock to get the ZA mount, but there’s nothing terribly exciting about doing something as absolutely frivolous as Acrocalypse NowArrested Development, or Rat Pack. If you’re going to include achievements for dungeons, spend your time developing ones like the ZA timed run. I’d rather all of the achievements be enjoyable than tedious. And spending your time on making them interesting would actually add another level of replay value the dungeons desperately need.

Of course, some of the lack of replay value has to do with the way the game is fundamentally designed, as well as developer tendencies. I remember when people first experienced the Malygos encounter (it’s a raid encounter, but it serves as an example that could apply elsewhere). A majority of the people in my raid thought the final phase of the encounter was cool. But a small number of them had the opposite reaction. And it wasn’t the better players complaining about it being boring or anything. Most of the better players reacted by saying things like, “OMG! BIG NUMBERS! I MUST GET HIGHER STACKS! YEEEEHAWWW!” It was the weaker players who complained. Why? Probably because they were afraid of losing their spot in the raid because they sucked at learning something new (blunt, but it’s the truth). And as complaints of such things rose, Blizzard seemed less and less inclined to include content that required people to play outside of the normal confines of their classes.

Part of that has to do with basic class design. For example, if a tanking class has better snap aggro than the rest, and you need to pick up something immediately after the unique part of the encounter, that class is probably going to excel where a tanking class that relies on slow and methodical threat generation suffers. In such cases, making things out-of-the-ordinary can cause class balancing nightmares. So what’s the easiest solution? Don’t make a lot of things out-of-the-ordinary. And, unfortunately, this creates a lack of variety in game play, which reduces the overall replay value of things like dungeons.

Number of Dungeons

Something interesting to me is how the number of five-mans has declined with each expansion’s release. The Burning Crusade contained fifteen five-mans when it hit the shelves. Wrath of the Lich King had twelve. And Cataclsym had only nine. I suppose I’d prefer nine quality dungeons over twelve mediocre ones. Also, TBC added only one five-man during its run, whereas Wrath added four (three of which were very good). 4.3 will apparently add three new five-mans, so the total will be raised to fourteen. So the overall decline in the number of five-mans is actually pretty small (raid dungeons are a different matter).

Overall

The early dungeon experience in Cataclysm is definitely better than it was during its predecessors. The encounters are better designed, and the dungeon finder has made it much easier to run dungeons. These are two large positives.

But the dungeons still suffer from some of the same problems that have existed for quite some time.

The stories are generally presented poorly. There’s not a lot of interesting characters to guide you through or create a narrative balance between protagonist and antagonist. And when these characters do exist, sometimes those characters are uninteresting or do uninteresting things (hello, Brann Bronzebeard). In most cases, there is only an unspoken dichotomy between the players and the bosses. And that’s it. Story is otherwise implied by virtue of what you know about any overarching plots (whether you learned them in the game or not). There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are pretty minimal in scope.

And when story is included in a dungeon, the production quality is usually pretty poor. While repeated viewing of the introduction to the Halls of Reflection in Wrath could be seen as annoying, the first time it was actually pretty damn cool. So why can’t every dungeon have something like this? I’m not asking for full-on cinematics or anything. But why didn’t anyone from Ramkahen play more of a role in the Lost City of the Tol’vir? Why couldn’t at least one of them work like Jaina did in the Halls of Reflection? Instead, they just stand there and give you quests. Booooooring!

Basic design is very much the same as it’s always been. There’s trash and there’s bosses. For the trash, you pull a pack, maybe you crowd control something, and then you take damage, heal through damage or damage something until everything in the pack is dead. After each round of trash, you’ll come to a boss. The boss works like a puzzle you have to solve. But because there’s no expectations of having an optimal group in a five-man, it’s not too difficult (unless you’re Commander-fucking-Springvale). So, if you do have an optimal group, one with something like heroism, it can seem incredibly straightforward. With that in mind, the challenges presented in Cataclysm’s dungeons are usually rooted in avoiding stuff that would otherwise kill you. While that can sometimes be pretty challenging, it means every encounter is generally focused on this same concept.

The ultimate replay value could use some work. Achievements are meant to provide us extra replay value to some degree, but they could be done better. If Blizzard wants to elevate replay value beyond what is typical, they need to spend more time in each dungeon making sure there’s something like the timed run in Zul’Aman. While we’re at it, get rid of the frivolous achievements and focus on making them each something that would greatly contribute to a dungeon’s replayability (like the timed ZA run, or most of Starcraft II’s mission achievements).

If Blizzard could make huge improvements in these areas, I foresee great things in the dungeoning future. I guess we’ll have to see if Blizzard is willing to meet that challenge.

One thought on “Cataclysm in Review: Five-Man Dungeons

  1. Play through Silverpine on a low level Horde character – it’s one of the gems of this expansion, not to be missed. And if you have the time do the first couple of quests in Hillsbrad afterwards.

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