Cataclysm in Review: Writing, Lore & Storytelling

I originally had about 1500 words typed up for this section. But halfway through, I realized I’ve already discussed the storytelling in this expansion at length in the preceding sections. So I will instead offer a brief summary and conclusion to my thoughts.

Cataclysm has reinforced my opinion that WoW’s writing is generally poor. It is a world of missed opportunities: opportunities to explain Deathwing’s history in greater detail, opportunities to bring more major characters from his past back into the narrative fold, opportunities to make better connections between various characters, and opportunities to make sure each zone or dungeon is presented with a higher quality in writing, production and direction.

It’s not as though Blizzard isn’t capable of doing any of these. They proved they’re more than capable with the Thrall questline they added in 4.2.

(The video is courtesy of Wowhead. It’s from the PTR, so it is missing the better music and bugfixes that are currently in the game.)

When I consider that questline particularly, I have to wonder why the stories told in the zones and dungeons of an expansion can’t be written, produced and directed just as well.

I’m not going to try to put my finger on the reasons why. MMOs are so massive in their production, you can only really look at things objectively. And what is clear to me is that the major narratives in Cataclysm are generally unfocused, uninteresting, and poorly produced. This is one of WoW’s biggest downfalls. And it’s especially tragic when Blizzard has shown us it’s capable of doing great things with the story in WoW. Warcraft is a universe rich in lore and characters. So, please, Blizzard… do them justice in more than just a few quests and dungeons that are introduced post-release.

And, please, for the love of god, don’t bring characters back from the dead merely for the sake of bringing them back from the dead!

Cataclysm in Review: Raiding

Disclaimer: I stopped raiding after the first tier of content in Cataclysm. I have no experience with the Firelands, beyond how it was introduced thematically and plot-wise via the Molten Front.

If I was to nitpick, I could say raiding has changed a lot with Cataclysm. The multi-tiered badge system was converted to a two-tier point system. And 10-mans were made prevalent, dropping loot equivalent to 25-mans. But neither of these changes affects the actual game play on a basic level. Neither changes how the encounters are fundamentally designed. Neither changes the quality of the storytelling found in a raid dungeon. Neither changes the way we traverse the depths of Blackwing Descent or the heights of Throne of the Four Winds. And this is very much where raiding is flawed.

For the most part, improvements are stagnant or inconsistent. And sometimes there is a nauseating amount of content recycling.

Breadcrumb Quality & Inconsistency

Let’s first consider breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs are quests, movies, events, zones, or anything that would otherwise lead you to a specific raid dungeon. Breadcrumbs are an important part of raid storytelling. They introduce you to an antagonist or set of antagonists and give your character reason to enter raid a dungeon to assault them.

Unfortunately, Blizzard doesn’t always do a good job with their breadcrumbs. Sometimes, they don’t include them in the game at all. At the release of Cataclysm, two of the three major raid instances—Blackwing Descent and Throne of the Four Winds—were missing breadcrumbs. No one tells you to go to Blackwing Descent. No one says, “Hey, there’s a rumor going around that Nefarian is back from the dead! How can that be possible? Who is responsible? Someone should investigate!” There’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. And the same goes for the Throne of the Four Winds. People only go to them because they’re on the map, because they remember Blizzard talking about them outside of the game, because Wowhead lists them, because they remember reading about them on MMOC, or because their guild or raid is headed to one of them and they’re invited to come along.

Even when the breadcrumbs do exist, they often could be done better or more completely. As an example of this, I’ll use the Bastion of Twilight. For the most part, the way you’re introduced to Cho’gall and his ilk towards the end of the Twilight Highlands isn’t half bad. But Blizzard could have done so much more. I remember how awesome it was entering the Black Temple after completing its attunement quests. You fought your way through a bunch of demons alongside Akama to a small breach in the Temple’s foundations. This was an excellent end to the trail of breadcrumbs leading into the Black Temple. The Bastion of Twilight, and many other recent raids, could do with this sort of epic conclusion to their introductory questlines.

Of course, I’m rather happy with the breadcrumbs for the most recent raid—the Firelands. Already you had the quest at the end of Mount Hyjal where you briefly engage Ragnaros. Tack on the Molten Front, and you’re given an adequate introduction to the Firelands. (I could talk about the annoyances of being daily-throttled, but that’s for another section.)

So Blizzard is essentially two-for-four with Cataclysm, which is pretty poor. And since there’s only one more raid instance coming this expansion, the best Blizzard can do is three-for-five. And you don’t want to be batting .600 in a video game.

Plot Development in Raids

I’m going to be blunt in this section. The plot development in WoW’s raid instances is awful. Blizzard has dropped the ball in this area time and time again. And it is no different in Cataclysm.

Blackwing Descent is the worst offender. I’ve already gone over the lack of breadcrumbs, so you already know you’re not introduced to the conflict outside of the instance. That must mean you’re introduced to the conflict inside. Right? Well, there are some things that allude to the overall story, but they by no means paint a complete picture. Nefarian’s back from the dead. His minions have been doing some experiments on various dragons, creatures and constructs. Beyond that, you’re not explicitly told who resurrected him, how, or why. And he’s dead before you find out. Maybe this will be addressed in 4.3, but I doubt it.

For that matter, the quality of the story that does exist in Blackwing Descent is poor. I almost laughed when Blizzard revealed Nefarian was back from the dead. That alone inspires some /palmfacing. Maybe I would find it plausible if it played out in some actual plot development in the game. Maybe this could have been Deathwing’s way of bringing physical proof that he is not the Aspect of Death in name only. But none of this was in the game itself. I seriously hope Nefarian and Onyxia aren’t bosses in the final raid. If they are, I don’t think I will ever have to say another word about how ridiculous the raids’ stories are. I could believe this narrative copout for the undead. But when you extend them beyond that, I start to wonder if Blizzard is struggling to come up with fresh ideas.

All right, well, Blackwing Descent doesn’t have a great story. What about the Throne of the Four Winds? The only thing to criticize is its lack of a story altogether. Al’akir and his lesser lords of wind reside here. He’s allied with Deathwing. I know because I read it on WoWWiki. They don’t really say how or why in the game. It’s merely implied. You don’t see anything about it in the raid instance itself.

What about the Bastion of Twilight? The plot development here consists of you chasing Cho’gall and battling through trash and the other bosses, until he reaches a dead end and is forced to fight. I guess the story here didn’t have to be too complex, but I’d liked there to have been more insight into Cho’gall’s recent past involving C’Thun. But I guess we’ll never find out in-game, now that he’s dead. Oh well!

This is even worse than the story told in Icecrown, which was mostly plagued with pointless filler bosses, cheesy dialog, terrible voice acting (you know what I’m talking about), and dangling threads.

Raid Game Play

Okay, Lume. Writing is one thing. But WoW doesn’t need to have great stories, if it’s a game that plays well.

Obviously, I agree with that sentiment to some degree. People play Mario because of its game play, not because the abduction story is at all compelling (it’s not). The same could be said for Ocarina of Time. The Ocarina of Time actually had a pretty saccharine story. But its artistic themes, whimsical charms, and its game play made it one of the greatest and most memorable games of all time.

Unfortunately, however, the game play in WoW’s raids can’t hold a candle to so many other games these days. And why is that? Well, firstly, it’s because WoW is outdated. But it’s also because it has some major problems in several areas that affect raiding.

Basic Design Is Stagnant

The basic fundamentals of raiding hasn’t really changed since TBC. Sure, raids have been downsized and the loot system has been streamlined. But the way you approach and kill nearly all of the bosses hasn’t changed much at all since TBC. You’re usually required to tank the boss (or a set of mobs that are a part of the encounter), dodge fire, heal through damage, DPS, and maybe deal with some kind of unique mechanic featured in the raid (something like a debuff that does AoE damage, or shatters the tanks armor, or something simple along those lines).

Of course, part of this has to do with the way the game is designed as a whole. When you have very strict roles defined by the holy trinity of tanking, healing and damaging, you feel compelled to force people to use those tools. So there’s only so much basic variety you can include. And while new spells and abilities can give the raid designers more options, most of the new spells are too awkward to make liberal use of, since not every class has a spell available that works equivalently. With this in mind, the raid designers have to tread lightly when considering requiring something like Leap of Faith or Heroic Leap. So most of the encounters operate on the premise that the tanks take damage and do their best to mitigate it, the healers heal through damage (be it raid or tank damage), and the damagers do, well, damage. Along the way, you’ve had a few more major mechanics added, such as healer cooldowns, but those are extremely limited in scope.

Occasionally Blizzard will create a unique encounter to keep things fresh. But it’s rare. But the unique mechanic is often limited to only a small portion of the encounter or to only a few people. Not everyone uses the cannons during the gunship encounter in ICC. Only a set number of healers go into the portal during Valithria. Only a set number of people hop up onto Magmaw’s head to impale him (her?) onto the spike. Etc. Sometimes, the encounter mechanics meant to add a little spice to raiding are poorly done (or they aren’t as interesting as they appeared on paper). So the fun isn’t there or it’s shorter-lived than it should be.

The first tier of content in Cataclysm has done nothing to change my mind about any of this. You always have those slight changes. The puzzle’s picture is different. But the pieces are always shaped the same. This isn’t enough for me anymore. I need a 3-D puzzle, a chess match, a poker game, a tennis match, some Minesweeper, and then a page of Sudoku.

RNG

RNG. The “random number generator.” Code for the randomization you encounter in games. WoW’s raids are full of it: how hard your abilities hit, how hard you get hit, whether you dodge or not, whether your abilities crit or not, what ability a boss uses, etc. There was a time when I was relatively cool with the RNG in raids. I was fine with it during both Archimonde and Kil’jaeden, because the style of RNG presented in each was manageable. For Archimonde, it was about manipulating the doomfire and making sure you kept your distance from it before a fear, and making sure you used your Tears if you got launched into the air. For Kil’jaeden, you just needed to know how to handle his combo of death. (Flame Darts! Fire Bloom! Darkness! ULTRAAAA COMBOOOO!) And for most of the other elements of RNG, they’d average out over the course of your raiding experience.

But the RNG in Cataclysm’s first tier was of the most frustrating kind. The kind where you had to go to the extreme in terms of gimmicks and raid stacking to have the best chances to succeed. If your tanks weren’t dodging a lot during Chimaeron’s final stage, you’d just stack mages and cheese the threat mechanics of the fight with mirror images and invisibility (not to mention a mage’s superior ability to burn). If you were having issues with one or two of your healers running OOM during phase two of Nefarian, due to Shadowflame Barrage, you’d just bring extra sources of mana regen or defensive cooldowns. And then there was RNG that was just completely dumb. For example, heroic Al’akir. I’m sorry, but any fight where you tell a large chunk of your raid to stand there and do nothing to minimize RNG gibbing is just poorly designed.

To me, it seems like the handling of RNG in raids has become sloppier over time. During TBC, it wasn’t all that bad and you could usually do something about it. But in Wrath and Cataclysm, it has often been an absolute bitch. And I really don’t think the first tier of raiding is the best time to throw tons of RNG at people, anyway. RNG keeps people on their toes, but you can’t just throw it around like rice at a wedding. You have to carefully plan it. Otherwise, it’s just annoying.

Class Balance

Class balance is I think one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to raiding. To be fair, the speed at which classes are balanced is much better than it used to be (whoever remembers how terrible it was during vanilla, raise your hand). But there was some gross oversight in the AoE DPS department early on in Cataclysm. So much so that it got to the point where my raiding compadres and I were bitching about it nearly every single raid until it was finally fixed in 4.1.

But, for the most part, the blame lies in the way the game is fundamentally designed. How can you easily balance a raid encounter when there are so many spec combinations with different mechanics while still making the raids challenging? Realistically, you can’t. You can try. And you can do things like making various stats equally beneficial for two different specs, so gear doesn’t complicate the matter. But, even then, you still have such a wide variety of classes and specs with which to fill a raid that you simply won’t be able to make challenging raids without frustrating guilds that simply don’t have the resources to utilize the most optimal setup for each and every fight. And, if you go in the other direction to accommodate those guilds, you risk making the raids way too easy for the guilds that do have those resources.

So, unfortunately, there’s really nothing Blizzard can do about it at this point. People are accustomed to the classes they have. The system is long-established. The game is spec-oriented. Full stop. Changing class balance to me would require changing the fundamentals of the game altogether. And you’d need to rework the classes from scratch. Maybe even remove some or change how you access them. And that is liable to upset a lot of players.

Overall Quality of Play

WoW’s engine is old. Older than most of the engines for games that also came out in 2004. This is because MMOs like WoW take longer to produce than traditional games. Furthermore, because WoW is persistent and some of its processing is done server-side, it cannot have as many complex processes to handle as its traditional counterparts. As a result, when WoW went live, it almost felt like you were playing a multiplayer version of a single-player platformer from 1998. Like Ocarina of Time online, but with more classes, abilities, specs, items, etc. Of course, things have slightly improved over time. But only slightly.

As one example, they’ve added smart collision with spells like typhoon, but the way it works is extremely primitive. I can’t tell you how often I’ve throw a typhoon right over all of the parasites on Magmaw, only to see half of them knocked back and the other half staying put. Even when two of them were directly on top of each other, one would get knocked back, and the other would just keep on trucking.

With such a dated engine, it’s extremely difficult for Blizzard to improve the game and create some truly unique mechanics. Can you imagine all the problems they’d have trying to make dynamically destructible objects? With WoW’s engine and the server architecture it operates on, I don’t think it’d be possible. And, unfortunately, that contributes to how stale the game feels to a lot of veteran players.

Comparing 10- and 25-Man Raiding

If there’s one thing I think Blizzard did well in considering its raid design for Cataclym, it’s acknowledging that 10-man raiding doesn’t have to be third-rate. Different people like different group sizes. It’s a preferential thing. Me? I enjoyed aspects of both 10- and 25-man raiding. I could spend a whole article writing about the differences between each. The social implications. The styles of delegation and management. What it feels like to be a part of the crowd. Etc.

The problem before Cataclysm was simply that 10-man raiding often had no incentives attached. In TBC, people wanted to run ZA because they wanted a bear mount. Or because they wanted the caster trinket. In Wrath, no one really wanted to run the 10-mans for anything but supplementary gear. So if you desired a more intimate setting, but wanted the same physical rewards, you were out-of-luck.

Of course, I should note the tuning for each version of an encounter and the balance between gear drops is not perfect. 25-mans have a very distinct advantage when it comes to loot. More items drop per person. And you’re more likely to have someone present who can actually use each item that drops. And for early progress, this means 25-mans have the advantage in that regard. But loot isn’t the sole discrepancy. General difficulty is, as well. Some encounters are easier in 25’s, and some are easier in 10’s. So the balance between the two is definitely not perfect, but then I never expected it to be.

At least 10-man raiding is now a viable option, and I think Blizzard made a good decision here.

The Upcoming Raid Finder

In 4.3, a raid finder will be implemented, operating much like the dungeon finder does now, but for raids. This is long overdue. As 4.3 is technically a part of Cataclysm, I’ll include my thoughts about it in this review.

When I was still leading a serious raid during Wrath, I had problems maintaining the raid’s health for pretty much the entire expansion. And this was while leading a guild that was frequently in the top 100 in the U.S. The situation was much more dire for raiding groups ranked even lower.

This is what happens when a game is bleeding players. The number of raiding guilds has to decrease. But guilds are slower to reduce in number than the size of the pool of players, because they have to gauge the size of the recruitment pool and then react to it. But guilds are reluctant to disband, so it’s a slow process. And, because of this, most guilds are generally stressed for numbers.

At the end of the day, some percentage of the raiding guilds will have to go. For the players in the guilds that dissolve, they’ll have to find a new. And, unfortunately, it’s not easy. You either have to find a raid that runs during your free time, or you have to transfer to a server with a successful PUGing operation that meets your standards. In light of this predicament, a lot of players end up quitting, exacerbating the problem.

The raid finder, however, may give players who would otherwise quit a reason to stick around, if they feel like playing raid roulette. Maybe they’ll even find a guild they like using the raid finder. For these people, it’s better than sifting through hundreds of guilds and putting in a bunch of applications.

If you ask me, the raid finder is about two years too late. The game’s already bled a lot of players that a raid finder could have saved. But I guess it’s better late than never.

Amount of Raid Content

With the recent announcement that 4.3 will be the last content patch of the expansion, Cataclysm will finish with five raids (not including BH, which I’ve never considered a proper raid instance). That’s three tiers of content. 25% less than Wrath and TBC. This seems odd to me, because Blizzard will be embarking on this final content patch very soon, and could possibly finish it around Cataclysm’s first birthday, give or take a couple months. I’m not sure that settles well with me. Nor am I sure it’s going to settle well with a lot of people.

Conclusion

I think much of what I’ve stated is a result of the fact that I burnt out on raiding a long time ago. What kept me going was the social interaction that often took place during the course of a raid. Some moments have left me with priceless memories I will cherish.

But the fact I’ve burnt out is very much a problem, especially because I know there are others in my situation. I saw friends burn out when I was still trucking along. And I’ve talked to friends who have since burnt out after my own retirement from raiding. I guess you could say everyone grows tired of a game eventually. But I think MMOs need to adapt to the changing demands of its players. And, if it can’t adapt, maybe an engine re-work is in order.

Raiding in WoW has its problems. Some of them are a result of flawed fundamentals with the game itself. And some exist simply because Blizzard hasn’t done enough to heighten the interest or enjoyment generated by the raids. We at least need more than what we’re getting—more compelling and better written stories told within the instances, and encounters that are better crafted and less of the same. The raid finder will probably be a good addition, if done well, but I’m not sure it will be enough to counteract the other problems I’ve mentioned.

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.

Cataclysm in Review: High-Level Zones & Leveling

Now we arrive to the main part of the expansion: the content meant for people who’d already reached the end-game in the previous expansion. We’ll begin be talking about the new 80-85 zones and leveling through them.

There are five high-level zones in Cataclysm:

  • Hyjal — The site of many important events and battles throughout much of Azeroth’s history. Where Deathwing has summoned Ragnaros—the elemental lord of fire—to bring destruction to the world tree.
  • Vashj’ir — An underwater zone. Where the naga are aiding Deathwing’s cause to try to manipulate the elements of water, and corrupt Neptulon, who hadn’t expressed loyalty to Deathwing’s cause.
  • Deepholm — Deathwing’s refuge after the second war. From where Deathwing reemerged into Azeroth and caused the Shattering. Where the world pillar has been shattered, and must be restored, but the Twilight’s Hammer and the distrust of Therazane may hinder your efforts.
  • Uldum — A desert land. Where there was once an ancient Titan city. Where the Tol’vir—a cat-like race that once served to maintain and protect the titan’s artifacts—live. Deathwing does have an active agent in the zone.
  • The Twilight Highlands — Your experience here depends on your faction. If you’re a part of the Alliance, you must help unite factions of the Wildhammer Clan. If you’re part of the Horde, you must help the Dragonmaw. From here, there is a lot of plot development. Part involves a servant of the old gods. Another part involves the battle between the red dragons and Deathwing and his twilight dragonflight. The final part of the zone involves Cho’gall and his Twilight Hammer.

Zone Flow & Travel

My first thought when I saw what the new high-level zones of the expansion were going to be was, “How are they going to handle the zone flow? How are we going to travel between each zone?” In vanilla WoW, The Burning Crusade, and Wrath of the Lich King, the zone flow involved physical movement. If you were meant to level in a specific zone, you had to travel there by foot, mount, boat, etc. But this would make for many boring hours of travel in Cataclysm. So how would they solve the issue? With portals, of course. (I tried my best not to say that in a GLaDOS voice.)

When a new zone is available to you, you simply execute an introductory quest line to travel to your destination. And in most cases this travel is expedient. In the case of Hyjal, you teleport to Moonglade with the help of a druid, and then take a flight on the back of a dragon to Hyjal (who also conveniently flies through a portal to speed the process even more). The only zone I found annoying to get to was Vashj’ir, and that’s because you have to wait for the boat to arrive and depart for something like ten or fifteen minutes (I’m not sure if the Horde has the same problem).

Returning to a zone is of no issue, unless you fail to unlock the portal that allows you to travel there. In most cases, the portal unlocks the moment you complete the introductory quest line. In a couple cases, you have to wait only a tad longer. Otherwise, when combined with your hearthstone, astral recall, or mage teleports, you can travel to and from your respective capital and the high-level Cataclysm zones easily.

The Quests & Storytelling

For the most part, WoW has always seen an improvement in zone quality with each expansion. This is no different in Cataclysm. That’s not to say it’s improved as much as I’d hoped, but it’s definitely improved.

Storytelling

In general, the quality of the stories told in the high-level Cataclysm zones is better than in efforts past. Each zone has a focus on a few story arcs and subplots. Unlike in times past, many of the storylines and plots begin and end within their respective zones. However, some stories have to conclude in the dungeons connected to them. That’s to be expected. The dungeons would be uninteresting if none of them tied into the story of their parental zones in some way.

That the zones are more insular in their storytelling is a big improvement over previous creative efforts. However, I will admit there is a lot missing here. Deathwing is fashioned as this expansion’s primary antagonist. His return was heralded by the Twilight cultists in the pre-expansion event. He was the main figure in the expansion’s introductory movie. He is responsible for the “reshaping” of much of Azeroth. And he makes some notable appearances in a few of the zones. But what about Deathwing is missing in these high-level zones? A lot, actually.

I’m not going to nitpick every single Deathwing plot point I think is missing, but I’ll give one example I think is a glaring omission. After being chased off by the other dragon aspects after the second war, Deathwing retreated into Deepholm to regain his strength. This is where you see him at the beginning of the expansion’s cinematic introduction. But as you play through the zone, you’re not offered much insight into this part of the zone’s relatively recent past. I think Blizzard should have briefly touched upon Deathwing’s background here. What happened that would have caused him to retreat to this elemental plane of earth? How did he keep tabs on his minions up in Azeroth and abroad? How much did Therazane really know about Deathwing’s presence when he was here? He was here for a pretty long time, afterall. Instead, the zone focuses mainly on the here and now, leaving players who either don’t have the time or don’t care enough to read the canonical novels in the dark.

Production Quality

The production quality of the high-level zones is inconsistent. For example, Uldum makes heavy use of the new in-game cut-scene engine, but it is a “desert” of voice acting. Meanwhile, the later parts of Deepholm make considerable use of voice acting, but the in-game cut-scenes are extremely limited. These inconsistencies are pervasive throughout the expansion’s high-level zones. And I have to wonder why that is. I suspect the cut-scene engine wasn’t finished before parts of each zone, or some of the developers working on specific zones weren’t comfortable using it. For the voice acting, it could be any number of reasons; perhaps they didn’t have the budget for it, perhaps they didn’t have the time, or perhaps they didn’t think it was necessary.

I’ll elaborate more about this in the production quality section of the review.

Quest Quality

There is some improvement in the quality of the actual quests themselves. I really like that you don’t always have to go back to a quest giver to obtain follow-up quests when it’s warranted. This saves the players some time they would have otherwise spent on needless travel.

There is also a larger number of quests in Cataclysm that have game play different from the usual kill and collect quests. By this, I mean there are more quests like the one at the end of Hyjal where you, Cenarius, Malfurion and Hamuul confront Ragnaros. You don’t just pull Ragnaros and damage him until he dies. You have to avoid fire waves and kill groups of mobs when he submerges. You have to pay attention to who is being attacked and defend them accordingly.

Another example is the now-famous Gnomebliteration quest, which I’ll simply post a video of:

Considering these types of quests, I have to ask why a vast majority of the quests can’t be like this. These quests are enjoyable, and the game could stand to have a flood of them. I specifically remember the exhilaration of doing the Undercity questline in the Wrath of the Lich King, where you were sent to attack the Undercity and deal with the Forsaken treachery that occurred at the Wrathgate. The game play here was amazing, and it integrated well with the story told.

So why can’t there be more of this? Why can’t Blizzard try to be more creative with the quests in this manner? Time constraints? Budgetary restrictions? General developer apathy? I don’t know the reason(s). What I do know is that a lot of us are tired of the same old, same old. We’re tired of pulling mob after mob and hitting our usual spells and abilities to kill each one in a routine of boredom. We’re tired of picking quest objects off the ground over and over again. We want game play that breaks this routine. And while this doesn’t apply to just questing, it’s something we want nonetheless. And something I think the zones need more of.

Overall

The increase in focused storytelling for each high-level zone in Cataclysm is admirable. But the experience is plagued by problems in game play and production quality. Blizzard could have made sure to include more voice acting in a higher number of quests. And Blizzard could have spent more time giving the quests a higher entertainment value. With these problems and the occasional plot holes and dangling threads that still exist in WoW’s narrative, the high-level zone experience is middling.

Regarding the Major Game Systems in Cataclysm

With so much information regarding classes and systems being revealed by Blizzard, it seems Cataclysm is pretty far along in terms of conceptual development. So I just wanted to take some time to briefly address what has been announced so far. I also want to take the time to express my hopes and desires for things that haven’t been announced.

Regarding Class Changes

It’s difficult to criticize or evaluate the changes coming to every class without really seeing how they compare and play against each other. So I’m not going to comment until we actually see the changes. I realize I already commented on druids, but I have since changed my mind, because the healing mechanics are changing too much. That said, I’d still like a new utility spell, even if its impact is incredibly minor.

Regarding PvE Information

The first of the refinements being made is that we’re combining all raid sizes and difficulties into a single lockout. Unlike today, 10- and 25-player modes of a single raid will share the same lockout.

We’re designing and balancing raids so that the difficulty between 10- and 25-player versions of each difficulty will be as close as possible to each other as we can achieve. That closeness in difficulty also means that we’ll have bosses dropping the same items in 10- and 25-player raids of each difficulty.

We of course recognize the logistical realities of organizing larger groups of people, so while the loot quality will not change, 25-player versions will drop a higher quantity of loot per player (items, but also badges, and even gold), making it a more efficient route if you’re able to gather the people. (Source)

The separation between twenty-five and ten-man raiding will still exist, though the disparity will be less severe and focused primarily around quantity of loot (which is important for any progression guild). This doesn’t give due credit to the fact that ten-man could be just as difficult, lest people have forgotten Sartharion already. Mobilizing a higher number of people is a challenge, but only if you’re comparing the effort of an individual trying to handle each version. Most twenty-five man guilds have multiple officers, however, so the difference is hardly striking.

If I were to consider TBC, Lunacy had between two and three people leading at any given time. From Karazan through the end of BT, we primarily had two people, though we did have a third person for a short while acting as a tie-breaker for loot decisions. During Sunwell, we definitively had three people leading the charge. I handled recruitment, interviews and keeping people focused. Silver handled strategies and keeping people calm. Siafu managed the guild bank, took interest in loot, and kept track of loot. All three tasks aren’t easy for a twenty-five man guild, but I do stress the work is spread out in this regard.

Now that Lunacy is merely a ten-man guild, it’s really just me leading things. I’ll admit it’s a lot less stressful than leading Lunacy’s old raid, but that’s not because of the smaller number we have to work with. The only reason it is less stressful is because our expectations are a lot lower and we don’t strategize to the same extent as we did when we were hardcore. If we were set on clearing heroic ICC10 with a fury, the work would be roughly the same. I’d be evaluating people more harshly and maintaining higher standards. I’d be promoting recruitment more actively. And I’d be pressuring people to improve more than I do. I’d also be keeping closer track of loot to ensure the distribution is more even.

There is a similar comparison with large and small businesses. At a small business, one person could handle business decisions, bookkeeping and ordering, while another person handles hiring, marketing and event planning. A larger company, meanwhile, would have a CFO overseeing all things monetary, a CEO to make major business decisions, a board to provide input, and then a bunch of individuals to handle tasks like hiring, marketing, and planning events. But in terms of the effort put out by an individual, it’s rather similar. That being said, I understand it also depends on the demands of an industry. So it’s considerably more accurate to compare a family-owned grocery store with the likes of Ralph’s, Safeway, or whatever major supermarket chain a given area has.

We do like how gating bosses over time allows the community to focus on individual encounters instead of just racing to the end boss, so we’re likely to keep that design moving forward.

I and the majority of my friends vehemently disagree. If the idea is to keep people from racing to the end boss, then simply put a gate before the end boss. Otherwise, the instance feels less epic when you’re forced to do it in small fragments. It’s like watching the first sequence of a movie repeatedly before finally moving on to a subsequent sequence, only to watch both of those sequences repetitiously until moving onto the third, etc. In the end, you’re left with an unsatisfying experience, which is why so many people will only watch a movie when they can view it in one sitting. Dungeons are experienced similarly, unless they are episodic in nature. And by episodic, I mean to say each gated wing would have a self-contained plot. That being said, I’m fine with gating the final boss for competitive reasons. But gating an instance to death bothers me for the reasons stated. And I’ve already made my argument a number of times.

Also, does it really matter if it’s gated if the ultimate goal for the hardcore guilds is clearing it on heroic?

Hero Points — Low-tier, easier-to-get PVE points. Maximum cap to how many you can own, but no cap to how quickly you can earn them. Earned from most dungeons. (most like the current Emblem of Triumph)

Valor Points — High-tier, harder-to-get PvE points. Maximum cap to how many you can own, as well as a cap to how many you can earn per week. Earned from Dungeon Finder daily Heroic and from raids. (most like the current Emblem of Frost)

This is basically the same as the current system, which I like. I would very much rather see the daily heroic ditched, however, if simply because there are some days I don’t have time to do a heroic. I’d much rather you be able to obtain valor points from seven heroics in a week, instead of a single heroic each and every day.

Regarding PvP Information

Honor Points — Low-tier, easier-to-get PVP points. There will be a maximum cap to how many you can own, but no cap to how quickly you can earn them. Earned from most PvP activities.

Conquest Points — High-tier, harder-to-get PvP points. There will be a maximum cap to how many you can own, and a cap to how many you can earn per week. Earned from winning Rated Battlegrounds or Arenas. (currently called Arena Points)

I like having a two-tier system that motivates people to continue competing. I also like how rated battlegrounds will be a secondary option to arenas, considering I much prefer battlegrounds.

That being said, I do have my hopes and reservations about how rated battlegrounds should be supported. Simply put, I hope to be able to run fully-organized groups once again. The excitement involved in organized play is simply too good to pass up, and it will be the thing that keeps me playing in Cataclysm, should other areas of the game falter.