Reviews

Cataclysm in Review: A Conclusion

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Here we are, over 20,000 words later. And I am now almost at a loss for them. I’ve written so much about Cataclysm and the state of the game this past month, it’s as though I’ve exhausted my ability to critique. And, yet, there are so many subtleties and details I have failed to discuss. Which is as it should be, because WoW is an absolute behemoth of a game, and to leave no stone unturned requires ongoing commentary. This is why WoW blogs exist. And why some blogs focus on a few specific areas. Without such an approach, you can only speak in generalities. But I have done my best to round out the strengths and weaknesses of this expansion, even if I haven’t really played since late May, or early June.

Considering the competition, there are so many things WoW does right. Increased accessibility ensures players can get involved in the most basic parts of the end-game without too much frustration, and without making the game easier (and before you say it is, I will ask you to take off your nostalgia goggles). Whenever I play another game and I’m forced to troll a general or trade channel to find a group, I realize, “Gee! This is something WoW does right!” And with this and other similar comparisons put into consideration, WoW remains one of the best MMOs, if not the best MMO, on the market today.

But that really isn’t saying much, because MMOs are not where they should be. And Catclysm hasn’t done much to fix the systemic problems WoW endures—the UI clutter, the lack of production value, how classes affect play, etc. I’ve already exhausted most of these topics, so I won’t go into more long-winded commentary about them. I will only tire of it, as much as my audience will tire reading about it.

Instead, I will offer a brief conclusion of sorts. And, frankly, I think Cataclysm is the worst expansion to date. The improvements were minimal. RBGs were incredibly rushed, and its ratings system buggy. It was released with fewer raids than I would have liked. The new in-game cut-scene engine wasn’t used as often as it should have been. You still have to read boring quest text boxes. And the fundamentals of the game haven’t changed enough to help the game break free from stagnation. These outweigh any bright spots of this expansion—the dungeon finder, the art design, the music, the fact that RBGs are now actually in the game, the needed changes for older content, etc.

If Cataclysm is an indicator of what future expansions will bring to the table, I think Blizzard should seriously consider starting work on WoW II. But, unfortunately, that prospect is unlikely, because Blizzard has already begun work on its next generation MMO—Titan. So I can only hope Blizzard will consider making some much-needed fundamental changes to WoW in the next expansion or two.

Cataclysm in Review: Production Quality

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“Production quality” is an ambiguous term. It can be used to mean a number of things. In the context of this review, I use it to mean the quality of the game’s aesthetics and the engines that support them. This includes things like the game’s music, the writing, the in-game cut-scenes, the voice acting, and art design.

Production Quality

WoW has generally lived a schizophrenic life. By that I mean the quality of the production in various areas of the game is different and seems to contradict itself. For example, the art design and music in the game are incredibly good, but the voice over work—whether as a result of its direction or the conscious decisions made by some of the voice actors—is sometimes extremely poor.

How is it that WoW can endure such a strange dichotomy of production values and flaws? Is it because it’s a massive production, and a lot of MMO producers seem to run them more like cheap blockbusters than finely-crafted Oscar contenders? They are, afterall, expensive to make and maintain, so cutting corners is pretty alluring. But I really do think they could do better in some areas, and I think the payoff would actually be a lot higher if they would just take their time.

Art Design & Direction

The art direction is one of WoW’s best features. The painterly style of WoW has its charms. It’s not until I stop playing WoW for a while and return to it that I appreciate it. This isn’t to say WoW’s graphics are amazing. They aren’t. But that is a result of a conscious decision made by Blizzard to ensure older machines can run the game. I have no problem with that.

Perhaps the only slip-up in Cataclysm’s art design was the decision to leave the “mountains” in most of Azeroth as the molehills they’ve been since release. I still yearn for the mountains of Storm Peaks and Icecrown Glacier. They were pretty spectacular. So why couldn’t similar mountains be fashioned for the updated Dun Morogh? Oddly, even the mountains in Mount Hyjal are rounded, but I think that’s because they wanted to match the terrain style they used in the Hyjal TBC raid zone. Honestly, I think people are willing to suspend belief and understand the changes are cosmetic, and not necessarily a result of the Cataclysm itself. But, hey, that’s an idea, isn’t it? So I’m not sure why they left the mountains the way they were.

Otherwise, the art team did a great job with Cataclysm, and especially on the new Stormwind and Orgrimmar. Each feels enormous (for the scale of Warcraft) and I love the design work put into them.

Oh, and the new water is awesome, as well. But I’m not sure to what extent the art team deserves credit for that, since I don’t know who worked on it.

The Music

As usual, Russell Brower and his team have done a great job on the music used in Cataclysm. And while much of the older music was modified and re-recorded to meet the current standards of WoW, they made a wonderful gesture to Jason Hayes by keeping some his original recordings in the game.

Derek Duke – Protect the Bottom Line

The music in Cataclysm is one of its brightest spots in terms of production quality. And I hope Blizzard keeps Russell Brower around for a long time!

Sound Design & Editing

Sound design in Cataclysm is generally okay. However, there are some moments missing essential sounds, and other moments that recycle old clips and cause the scene to play out awkwardly.

Just take a look at the beginning of Mount Hyjal, when you’re flying into the zone during the introductory quest.

The music is great. But where is the whooshing sound coming from Deathwing’s enormous wings? When I first watched the scene, I thought “something is eerily missing.” Then I realized it was because it was much too quiet for what was going on. Even if it is just a dragon hovering, spitting fire into a pool of lava, and summoning Ragnaros.

What sounds are in the game are usually well done. But not always. Occasionally, they don’t seem to fit the situation or what you’d expect.

Voicework

The voice acting in WoW is all over the place. If you raided during Icecrown Citadel, you know what I’m talking about. You go from the awesome “BOOOOONESTOOOOORM!” To the long, terrible monologue delivered by Lady Over-Dramatizes-and-Never-Shuts-Up. And then you go from Putricide’s amusing “Great news, everyone!” (A reference to Futurama, by the way.) To the atrociously annoying Sindragosa and her infamous “BETRAAAYS YOOOOUU!

Of course, by referencing those examples, I’m using the greatest extremes of WoW to make a point, and that’s not really fair in criticizing the work done in Cataclysm. Cataclysm isn’t quite as bad, but it still has the same general problems. Some voice work is amazing, some is mediocre (to be expected for minor lines), and some of it is pretty awful (Sinestra, but she is not quite as bad as Sindragosa or Deathwhisper). Let’s take a look at one scene that really exemplifies all of those claims, the introduction to Vashj’ir:

As you can see, lines land in different positions across various spectrums. Some are good. Some are okay. Some are awful. Some are delivered matter-of-factly. Some are delivered earnestly and meet the level of seriousness demanded by the scene. Some are comical. Some are drab. This lack of direction (or poor direction, I’m not sure which) really causes the scene to play out poorly. And I’d say there is no payoff, if not for the fact it’s ended by a giant kraken.

Nitpicking, there are a few lines that really stick out like sore thumbs to me. The over-the-top deliveries of Mack Fearsen and Budd bother me especially, because they interrupt the original tone set by the soldiers. And then there’s Adarrah’s lines, which come off as forced and unnatural. And why the hell would you use the generic female human /cry instead of the voice actress’ own sobs? They did this in Icecrown Citadel, too, and it’s really starting to bug me. Is it laziness? Did they forget to write it in the script? I’d rather there be no sound and just the animation of her crying.

You’ll also notice some very odd timing on the delivery of the lines. That in and of itself is a problem, but it’s not the fault of the voice actors nor their directors, it’s the fault of the person(s) in charge of scripting the event in-game, as much as it is the engine that handles NPC dialog.

Writing

The general writing in WoW is split down the middle. On the one hand, the vocabulary and the technical craftsmanship of an individual line is usually good. But the script for various events is often melodramatic, and sometimes downright weird. Furthermore, the overall story generally feels second rate to me. Whereas Warcraft III had unifying themes of redemption and revenge, WoW’s themes are scattered and often incomplete. And while I don’t expect anything Shakespearean out of the game, I definitely think it could be much better than it is.

The poorer writing work could be a result of the fact that WoW’s creative development team hasn’t really grown at the same rate as the game. It used to be that many of the designers would actually write some of the story, dialog, quest text, etc. So creative development is still trying to find its footing now that it is doing more and more of the writing in the game itself. And, unfortunately, because I don’t really know to what extent they are doing the writing these days, any critique I have will come off as simply uninformed.

But I can stress the importance of having actual writers doing the writing for a game. A lot of companies employ them these days. And their games are (surprise) usually popular in part due to the excellent writing. (And if they also have great game play, that’s a bonus!) I don’t really know where Blizzard is going with WoW in this area, but I really hope their production leads begin to stress the importance and role of quality writing. A good start would be to tone down the popular culture references in some areas, make each scene and sequence more cohesive, and bring writing more to the fore of the PvE game.

In-Game Cut Scenes

Blizzard developed a new in-game cut-scene engine specifically for use in Cataclysm. This was done because the process of making pre-rendered cut-scenes is long and time-consuming.

Unfortunately, the engine wasn’t widely used this expansion. You see very few cut-scenes in zones like Mount Hyjal and Vashj’ir, but an absolutely enormous number in Uldum.

Why this is, I’m not entirely sure. And I’ve already discussed the issue at length in previous sections of this review. But it definitely bears repeating. Why would you develop a system for an expansion, and then make minimal use of it? To meet a deadline? Think about Starcraft II. Starcraft II has an in-game cut-scene engine, as well. The only difference? It makes liberal use of it from beginning-to-end.

I realize Blizzard thinks it’s really important to make deadlines in a game like WoW. If you don’t, people have to play the previous content for an extended period of time, and they might grow bored of it, which has implications in terms of people quitting and upsetting the stability of the game’s guilds. But I really think increasing the production value of the game will attract new players and inspire people who have quit to return. So the extra work (and, hence, the extra wait) seems worth it to me.

Another thing that bothers me about the way Blizzard used this engine was that many of the scenes went unvoiced (especially in Uldum). The dramatic impact of a scene is so much greater if you simply add voices to the characters. Reading is all well and good, but we are in an era of video games where the vast majority of story-driven games are voiced. Why can’t WoW’s major stories, then, be voiced from beginning to end? Cost? Time? Who knows.

And, finally, the system was really buggy. With something so important, you’d think Blizzard would make sure it wasn’t as laden with as many bugs as it was at release. There’s nothing more annoying than being unable to skip a scene you’ve already seen. Or having to watch an entire cut-scene, because it won’t give you credit for your quest otherwise.

Pre-Rendered Cut-Scenes

The pre-rendered cut-scenes in Cataclysm are top notch. But they are few in number, as is usually the case in WoW. The game could really stand to have more of them. Maybe one for each major zone. And maybe one for each raid. I realize they take time to make, but they are a valuable asset to any game.

What’s Missing?

There’s also an issue in the sense that I think the production quality could be much higher than it is in Cataclysm. Why is it that we’re still required to read quest text almost seven years into the game? So many other games’ stories play out entirely voiced and acted. You walk up to someone who gives you a quest (or mission, or objective, or whatever the game wants to call it), and they express their plight clearly and concisely. Then off you go! (Assuming you didn’t decline it.) WoW (and, hence, Cataclysm) misses this. An MMO is not a novel. It shouldn’t be read like one.

I really hoped the in-game cut-scene engine would change some of this. And Blizzard has shown us it is capable of producing quests with high production values. And there is no better example of this than the Thrall quest line added in 4.2. But I don’t think Blizzard goes far enough. I’m fine if a quest asking me to kill some wolves around a poor farmer’s pig farm isn’t voiced or dramatically introduced. But when major quests with important plot development are doled out in the most uninteresting ways, I worry about WoW. Especially because games outside the MMO market have been advancing at a rapid pace. Why would I want to continue playing a game that doesn’t meet my rising expectations in production values? Cost? Guild attachment? These issues are becoming less meaningful, as expansion cycles increase, server transfers seem necessary when changing guilds or playstyles, and increased connectivity between players makes people less reliant on their guild chat and channels.

Overall

Overall, the production quality in Cataclysm is missing some very important pieces. And what does exist is middling. Some of it is great. And some of it is mediocre. Some of us come away from Cataclysm with a feeling of wanting more in this department. And that’s not a position you want to be in when the competition is trying to fill the void in this niche in the MMO market.

Cataclysm in Review: Other Systems & Design

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Now that we’ve covered the major areas of the game, I want to talk about the other things added or changed in Cataclysm.

The only new systems introduced in Cataclysm, other than those I’ve already discussed, are the guild leveling and guild challenge systems. The other planned system—path of the titans—which was to be tied to the new archaeology profession, was scrapped.

Blizzard did make some changes to other systems. Gear stats are notably different—mastery was introduced as a new stat, some stats were removed, and some stats were made more beneficial across multiple specs. They also tweaked the talent trees, forcing you to choose your primary spec, removing a lot of filler talents, and giving you some necessary bonuses automatically.

Guild Leveling & Achievements

Guild leveling is a simple concept. Just as you would level your character, people can also earn guild experience and level their guilds. With each level comes various rewards and perks. For a list of guild perks, please see Wowhead.

Guild experience is earned through various means. Whenever your complete a quest, complete a dungeon, win a rated battleground, etc., you will earn guild experience. Blizzard is still making tweaks to this feature, since it’s very easy to patch. There is a cap on the amount of experience your guild can earn on a daily basis, though it goes away once you reach the last few levels.

I’m not necessarily opposed to the guild leveling system, but I definitely think it has implications that complicate the diaspora. People are naturally drawn to guilds already at level 25 (the cap). Newer guilds, meanwhile, find it difficult to attract players, since they don’t have the same shiny perks as the guilds at the cap. In reaching a decision to join a freshly created guild, players have to accept the fact that they won’t be earning extra experience or honor, nor will they be able to mass resurrect after recovering from a dungeon wipe.

If you ask me, I think it’s time Blizzard lifted the daily cap on experience. All it does is prevent the newer guilds from being able to catch established guilds in a reasonable amount of time.

Guild Achievements & Reputation

Guild achievements were also added along with the guild leveling system. They work very much like personal achievements, but are earned for the cooperative and cumulative efforts of members in the guild. Some of them offer very meaningful rewards.

Some of the conditions for earning these achievements also involves guild reputation. Just as you can become friendly, honored and exalted with a faction, you can become friendly, honored and exalted with your guild. Raising your reputation works very much like earning guild experience. Various guild-based (and some personal) activities contribute to your guild reputation. The amount of reputation you can earn in a week is capped. This ensures people cannot simply join a guild and have access to all the perks and rewards available to that guild immediately.

Overall

As I stated before, the guild leveling and achievement systems come with interesting implications. It requires newer guilds to have to struggle through the system to meet its full potential for attracting players, but it offers another path of advancement and promotes participation in guild-based activities. I’m rather split on my opinion of them.

Guild Challenges

A new feature added after release is the guild challenge. Each week, you’re allowed to complete a set amount of guild challenges in the following areas: dungeons, raids and rated battlegrounds. Killing a raid boss, completing a dungeon and winning a rated battleground are the conditions for completing these challenges. Successfully completing each one deposits a modest amount of gold in the guild bank.

This system is pretty clear cut. You get gold for completing activities as a guild, and you can either hang onto it for guild funding purposes, or you can distribute it to whomever you like in the guild. It’s a pretty nice feature.

Mastery, Stats & Gear

Mastery is a new stat that augments your character based on your primary spec. To offer some examples, each point of mastery increases the bonus damage of a moonkin’s eclipse state, and increases the holy damage done by a retribution paladin. The masteries for some classes are much more complicated than these, however. For example, a holy paladin’s mastery involves placing absorption shields on targets of their heals.

Furthermore, Blizzard has done away with a lot of the older stats. Armor penetration, attack power, spell power, mp5, defense, and block are no more. Armor penetration is gone completely, which is probably just as well, since it overly complicated class balance and gear scaling. Block is also gone. Attack power was integrated with agility and strength. Spell power was integrated with intellect. mp5 was integrated with spirit (shamans and paladins rejoice). I wouldn’t really say defense was integrated with anything. Instead, you simply have alternatives.

Haste, crit, dodge and parry still exist. So you still have to weigh them against each other, as well as mastery.

Strength, agility, intellect and stamina have been deemed the primary stats. And when Blizzard says this, they actually mean it. They have done this designation justice. This often means items lower in item level are not as useful as those that are higher. And this is really as it should be. It’s not always true, but it generally is.

It’s also important to note that Blizzard has made an effort to make various stats at least beneficial to some degree to every spec and class. However, this is not universally true. Tanks won’t find much value in haste and crit outside of threat. Non-tanks won’t find any value in dodge and parry. And non-healing casters won’t find any value in spirit (mages rejoice).

For the most part, the addition of mastery and the changes in approach to gear design is preferable to Wrath’s gear design. Wrath had so many stats, it felt like you had to have a math degree to make sense of it all. And because so many classes and specs didn’t benefit from various stats, a piece of gear would often go to waste after the one or two people who actually needed it picked it up.

Another major change is the addition of bonuses acquired from wearing your class’s appropriate armor type. If you’re meant to be wearing mail, you will get a bonus for wearing mail armor in all eight slots. This is to prevent people from taking piece of gear below your normal armor type, so cloth wearers don’t feel cheated by having to compete with the most number of people.

With the way the system is now, the item tables don’t have to be as large as they were before, meaning less goes to waste. That’s not to say items don’t go to waste at all, but it’s a lot better than it used to be. And the fact that I can go from restoration to moonkin without feeling completely useless is also a plus.

Archaeology: The New Profession

Another new addition in Cataclysm is the archaeology profession. Originally meant to be tied to the Paths of the Titans system (which would have basically been another talent tree), archaeology still found its way into the expansion.

Archaeology is rather simple in its design. You pick it up from Stormwind or Orgrimmar, and then when you open your map, you’ll see regions of the map marked with a little shovel icon. These are dig sites, where you can go and dig up fragments. You’ll only ever see four dig sites per continent (counting Outland as a continent, once you have enough in archaeology to dig there).

Each dig site has a specific classification and will offer different types of fragments. For example, a dwarven dig site will naturally offer fragments of dwarven artifacts. The types of dig sites available to you also depends on your level of archaeology.

For each type, you are given an artifact to complete. Which artifact you’re given is random (but some also require having a higher level of archaeology). You can be given a common artifact to complete, or something rare that will give you an interesting item to use or wear. These can be flavor items, or they can be armor and weapons, if you’re lucky. The items and weapons obtained through archaeology are account bound. But be careful, because you cannot send them to characters on realms other than the one you’ve completed the artifact on (unless you transfer a character with the artifact in his or her inventory).

The actual act of doing archaeology works somewhat like a gathering profession. However, the nodes do not appear until you’ve discovered their location. This must be done using a survey tool, which will point you in the general direction of the artifact fragment each time you use it. The closer to the fragment you are, the more accurate the reading of the tool is.

This sounds like an interesting concept, but it really isn’t. Basically, once you enter a dig site area, you drop your survey tool, see if it’s red, yellow or green (red means it’s far, green means its close, yellow is in between), and then move in the direction it tells you to. Then you drop it again and repeat this until you find the node. Then you click the node and collect the fragments.

It’s just like any other gathering profession, only slightly more interesting. But that’s like saying the Ford Pinto was a slightly better car than the Reliant Robin. Overall, archaeology is yet another boring time sink, just as most professions are and have been for ages in WoW and other MMOs.

This is particularly disappointing, however, because Blizzard gave us such rosy descriptions of the profession during past Blizzcons. As they described it during the panels, it would be a profession intertwined with the history and lore of WoW. But the only references made to the game’s lore or history is simply a paragraph for the race tied to the each artifact type, and the names of the items you get. And that’s it. That’s like proclaiming “I’m going to dig a hole forty feet deep!” But then giving up after making it only a foot.

Archaeology is yet another professional disappointment.

Talents

Cataclysm changed the way talents work. Instead of just putting points in the talents you want, and working your way down the trees, you now have to choose your primary talent tree. You are then locked into that tree until you’ve put 31 points into it. And while that doesn’t seem like very much, I must point out that the trees were trimmed down, and the points available lowered.

This is because you’re given some essential spells, augmentations and functionality automatically once you choose your primary talent tree. So you no longer need to spend points on them. This isn’t to say the trees are devoid of talents you need to take, but there is less emphasis on such talents.

For the most part, these changes were made to coincide with the addition of mastery. But they were also made to offer other functionality. For example, choosing balance as a druid means you’re given a new power bar that determines whether or not you’re in an eclipse state. Without this new system, that wouldn’t really be possible.

Conclusion

These are the changes and new systems I hadn’t already discussed in great detail. There isn’t much more to say about them other than what I’ve already noted above. A few are good. One has its problems. And one is incredibly boring.

Cataclysm in Review: PvP

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Other than the introduction of rated battlegrounds, PvP hasn’t changed much in Cataclysm. Arenas still mostly rely on players adopting and adapting to the strongest class combinations. Outdoor PvP is still mostly irrelevant. While some minor tweaks were made to the points system, rated battlegrounds are really this expansion’s only claim to PvP fame.

Honor and Conquest Points

Cataclysm’s gear system is still governed by a two-tier point system—honor points for starter gear, and conquest points for the end-game. Arena points were renamed to conquest points because they can be obtained from both arenas and rated battlegrounds.

One major change to the points system is how they are earned. Instead of earning your points at the end of the week, you now earn them on a per-win basis. There is a cap on the number of points you can earn in a week, determined by what your rating was the previous week, assuming you played enough games. The higher your rating, the higher your cap will be.

Ratings requirements on gear were relaxed. Only high-rated weapons have a higher item level than their lower-rated counterparts. Having a higher rating results only in cosmetic changes for your armor.

In 4.2, a soft cap was added for weapons. You must now earn a set amount of honor or conquest points in an individual season to purchase them. All this really does is force people to buy some armor before the weapons. I’m not entirely sure what the intention is with this design. Its impact is extremely minor, and not worth analyzing further.

If you ask me, the current system is preferable. I never liked that a team twenty points above the threshold could have such a huge gear advantage over a team just twenty points below. Their ratings are so similar, gear should not be a huge factor. If you give someone with a high rank a substantial handicap, it simply distorts the correlation between a team’s rating and their skill level.

I hope Blizzard keeps this system for a long time.

A Word on the Honor Grind

At the beginning of Cataclysm, the honor grind was atrocious. It was about twice as long as it needed to be. Blizzard fixed this issue in 4.1, but it could have been fixed earlier. A couple months after release would have been nice.

As it stands, it’s now at a good point. The grind won’t bore you to death, but it’s long enough to make sure people don’t have a free pass.

Arena

Arenaing in Cataclysm is generally the same as it was in Wrath, so I don’t have much to say about it. The class balance is a bit different, but that’s to be expected. The other difference was the temporary absence of the Ring of Valor (often maligned by the community). But it has since made its way back into the rotation, albeit with a couple tweaks.

About the only negative criticism I really have is that Blizzard could do better to pay more attention to how different arenas can affect the balance of classes and specs. For example, the fewer all the maps have adequate ledges, the weaker moonkins become in arena, since they are so dependent on knocking people off ledges with typhoon. I’m perhaps tooting my own horn with that example, but similar issues, regardless of the class or spec, need to be monitored and addressed more than they are currently.

Rated Battlegrounds

In order to fully appreciate where we are today with rated battlegrounds (RBGs), I think it’s important to consider the history of battlegrounds.

A Little Bit of History

Battlegrounds have undergone a strange evolution in WoW. When vanilla first hit the shelves, they didn’t exist at all. If you wanted to PvP, you had to go searching for it out in the world zones. After several months, Blizzard finally implemented Alterac Valley (AV) and Warsong Gulch (WSG). But you didn’t queue for them, and you could only fight people of the opposite faction on your own server. There was no ratings system like there is today. You earned honor, and it wasn’t subject to a weekly cap. The amount of honor earned each week would determine your rise in the ranks. The first several ranks were linear in progression, but the final ranks were competitive. There could only ever be one Grand Marshal (GM) or High Warlord (HWL) at a time on each server. The ranks existed to determine your eligibility to purchase gear (with gold). GM/HWL gave you access to all the weapons. The few tiers below that gave you access to epic armor. And the rest of the tiers gave you access to superior armor. The armor had set bonuses like what you see on any PvE tier set. For example, the druid bonus made you run much faster in travel form, making them the flag runners of WSG.

It’s important to note there was no such thing as resilience in vanilla, meaning PvE gear was incredibly good. It also meant burst and escape tactics were more important than the strategies you see today (though you do technically have to escape from smoke bomb, and short-term burns mimic the way burst tactics worked, in a way).

In TBC, the old honor system was scrapped. Battlegrounds were now cross-server (confined to a battlegroup), and entirely point-based. They no longer offered the best gear you could obtain. Instead, the new arena system served this purpose. However, you could still queue as a group, meaning organized battlegrounds still persisted to some degree. But organized play became increasingly rare as the expansion went on and all of the serious PvPers began to focus on running arenas. As a result, battlegrounds became PUG fests. Furthermore, the introduction of resilience changed the style of play dramatically.

In Wrath, battlegrounds stayed very much the same as they were in TBC. However, the ability to queue as a full team was removed entirely. Organized battlegrounds practically died, only existing by the grace of a small percentage of holdouts using mods to simulate group queuing (it was extremely primitive, and you often had to spend a lot of your time dropping the queue and trying again to get in as many people as possible).

Finally, after six years of the above, Cataclysm has brought us the RBG. RBGs were needed long ago, and I much appreciate the effort to bring them to life. But they are also not without their problems.

The Good

There isn’t too much that needs to be said in praise of RBGs. That they exist at all is what’s good about them, especially because organized and competitive battlegrounds had not really been supported since vanilla. For four years, many of us went without our preferred style of PvP, and reminisced about the good old days of vanilla—about free action potions, about removing PoM before the pyro resolved, about epic two-hour long battles between the top WSG groups on the server, etc. Of course, we also reminisced about the bad things—the long and terrible grind towards Grand Marshal, and the competitive aspects of the old honor system. In some ways, what we have now is better, because the grind isn’t so terrible.

For the most part, the basic premise of the RBG system is good. It’s not like it was in vanilla, when you needed to play something like 80 hours a week to get to the top. Hell, on many servers, you didn’t even need to be particularly good, you just needed to grind out as much honor as you possibly could for as many hours each week as you could handle. There was a druid on Proudmoore who conscripted his own children to complete the task for him. When he was at work during the summer, they’d be toiling away in WSG or AV, earning him honor. While he was cooking dinner for them, one would most likely be running around literally spamming moonfire every game. And when he finally had some free time for himself, he’d step in to play. And this got him to GM, even though he wasn’t exactly the best druid in the world.

With RBGs, there is still some level of a grind to get every piece of gear. But it’s not terribly long. Of course, if you want to be the best of the best, you’re better off practicing as much as possible to stay at the top of your game, but you don’t need to play more than several hours a week to keep pace with the conquest cap.

The Bad

This is where things get a little ugly. RBGs were and are not without their problems. Their initial design was rushed, meaning systemic flaws came with them at release, and these flaws still reverberate today. The way the graveyards work in some of the RBGs have also created more problems than they’ve solved. And I still think the whole idea of clicking nodes to cap is misguided for some battlegrounds.

They Were Rushed

There’s no question the design of the RBG system was rushed. It was opened for testing during beta only a month before Cataclysm’s release. And since Blizzard had to begin prepping for the expansion’s release for part of that month, that meant they only had a couple weeks to make any major changes to the system, regardless of how absolutely necessary they may have been.

As a result, major problems immediately found their way into the system. One of these problems was the way the ratings system worked (particularly the matchmaking ratings, called “MMR”). Initially, you had to try really hard before you’d start losing points as a result of a loss. Because of this, anyone who played in the first few months was treated to having inflated ratings (both their BG rating and MMR). Sure, you still had to at least play reasonably well, but you didn’t have to achieve excellence to do well. Blizzard eventually realized their mistake, and made changes to the MMRs for RBGs. Unfortunately, they decided not to reset people’s ratings when this change was made, meaning the loss and gain of points was seemingly inexplicable and distorted.

Now, I haven’t played since 4.2 came out, so I don’t really know to what extent this issue has been fixed. Reading some threads on the AJ forums lead me to believe the MMR system has been improved in some ways, but it’s still not without its problems. (See this thread for more information.)

Another problem was the initial mistake of alternating 10- and 15-man RBGs each week. At release, you couldn’t play 10-mans every week, nor could you play 15-mans every week. You were forced to either sit people during the 10-man weeks, or skip every other week to focus on one type of RBG. This rotation caused some teams to dilute their skillset, as they’d feel compelled to rotate people in and out to get their conquest points on a weekly basis. The teams that chose to skip every other week often found their players getting bored during the weeks a large portion of the team had to rotate.

After a while, Blizzard chose simply to drop the 15-mans altogether, as the majority of RBG teams were running 10-mans. Any teams attempting to focus on 15-mans had to downsize their roster if they wanted to continue. And anyone who preferred the 15-man RBGs to the 10′s was out of luck. Honestly, I wish Blizzard would have at least tried to separate each into two different brackets. Instead, they didn’t even give that a shot, and immediately dropped the larger bracket. Who knows if the 15-mans would have gained in popularity if people had a chance to run them week-by-week, or if there would have simply been at least enough people doing them to justify leaving them in the game. I really liked rated Strand (despite my distaste for getting it when I random queue), so I was personally disappointed in losing that RBG specifically.

The biggest thing that bothers me is how the initial rush has caused reverberating effects. A lot of people who were initially excited for RBGs simply gave up and quit due to their poor implementation. This left teams on servers with small PvP communities starving to fill spots on their rosters as the available pool of players rapidly shrunk.

Clicking for Node Capture Doesn’t Always Seem to Be the Best Option

Initially, I was pretty warm to node-based RBGs where you had to click and channel a flag to cap each node. This is because the concept was proven to work in Arathi Basin, and still works in the current style of competitive RBGs.

But then the Battle for Gilneas came along. I’ve played games in Gilneas where the teams literally duke it out at the Waterworks for over half the match before someone caps the node. Sometimes my team would be dominating our opponents in terms of kills, only to be foiled by people returning from their resurrection cycle, because it takes so long to clear people out these days. Had the nodes worked more like Eye of the Storm, this wouldn’t have been an issue. We’d slowly push the progress bar towards capturing the node, because we’d have a constant one- or two-man advantage in presence at the node. But because all you need to do is hit someone to keep the team from capping, that means people can stack a small part of the team to be extremely difficult to kill, meaning they can work an advantage in terms of interrupting node capture. This causes the matches in Gilneas to become frustrating and the conditions for winning seem more based on who is better at capping and interrupting than at actually playing their class to the best possible degree. While being able to manage the battlegrounds features should be important, they shouldn’t absolutely dominate the factors that contribute to victory.

The worst part is that Blizzard really hasn’t even considered at least trying other designs for Gilneas. Who knows if the old Eye of the Storm-style capture would work or not. For all we know, it could be so much better in practice at the higher levels of competition. But we’ll never know if it isn’t tried on live servers.

Graveyard Mechanics Are Designed Sloppily

One of the problems with a lot of the RBGs is the sloppy graveyard mechanics and design. Twin Peaks and Gilneas exhibited this problem the most.

In Gilneas, at release, because people would resurrect at the node closest to where they died, it was incredibly easy to take a node and hold it. So comebacks were nearly impossible, no matter how much better you played in the latter ninety percent of a match. In 4.1, the graveyard mechanics were slightly changed, such that if you died at the Waterworks, you wouldn’t resurrect there. This made node defense a tad more difficult. But because it was so difficult to fully clear out people, teams could still rez and ride their way back to the node no problem.

In Twin Peaks, the issue is simply where you respawn. At release, if you died defending your flag carrier (FC) while you were in your base, you’d quickly come back to the aid of your defense, because you’d respawn near your flag room. Likewise, if you were on offense, you’d spawn mid-field, which wasn’t too far to rejoin your offense quickly. Of course, in 4.1, where you resurrected was changed. If you died on defense, you’d spawn midfield. But midfield isn’t much further away than your home graveyard, so the impact of this change is very minimal. Also, if you die on offense, you now spawn all the way back at your base. The negative impact this has is that people who die on offense can quickly come to the aid of their defense. So killing people other than the FC (in either design) often has a very minimal benefit. Sometimes it’s advantageous, if killing them weakens the strength of the defense enough to allow you to kill the FC with much greater ease. But this isn’t always the case, since some teams stack healers up the ass for defense, and killing one out of four does very little to increase your chances of killing the FC before they make their way back into the room from the graveyard. You’re better off waiting for your smoke bomb(s) to come off cooldown, and forcing the FC to use their escapes before combining a smoke bomb with a solar beam or silence/interrupt/CC chain.

Part of the graveyard design issue is caused by the fact that graveyards work on a static rotation. You do not always have to wait a minute or 30 seconds before you’re resurrected. Sometimes, you can get a “good rez,” and you’ll have to wait only a few seconds before you repop. But if you die when the graveyard has a full cycle to complete, you’ll be at a disadvantage. I’m not sure if one exists now, but I would definitely have wanted a mod capable of keeping track of the rez timers for each and every graveyard. This way, you could time your deaths or kills based on what would be most advantageous to you.

Graveyards simply need a comprehensive redesign for the RBGs most susceptible to the problems they create. This means I don’t think AB should be touched, but I definitely think WSG, Twin Peaks and Gilneas need to be reconsidered (even with the tweaks that have already been made to them). Personally, I think resurrections should be based on time of death. When you die, you have to wait X seconds before you’re resurrected. Of course, this would cause graveyard camping issues, since respawns would be scattered, making it easy for the other team to farm fresh repops. To solve this issue, you’d implement immunity at the graveyards, but position them so the resurrecting team couldn’t exploit the immunity. In other words, make it so people spawn in a purgatory room, and force them to take a one-way teleport to re-enter the match after everyone repops (that way everyone can take the port all at once, so they’re not fodder for farm, but can’t exploit the immunity area). This design would make killing people more worthwhile, since they’d have to wait a full cycle before being resurrected. When the team is at a full minute or 30 seconds worth of being a man down, that’s much better than someone resurrecting after three seconds with full mana and a new lease on life (for both them and any teammates they can assist).

Class Balance and Class Abilities in PvP

You’ll notice I didn’t include discussion about class balance as either a positive or negative in RBGs. That’s because, at a competitive level, class balance is never really an issue, since most of the top teams will adopt the best combination of classes and specs to compete and keep the balance of power roughly equal. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t think Blizzard should at least try to balance the classes and specs, so the more casual players can at least viably farm some level of conquest points and have a fun without feeling as though they need to play a different class to PvP. But expecting perfection in class balance is simply unreasonable, especially when you have 30 different talent trees, and over 30 possible builds.

The one thing I do want to mention is how I think Blizzard could do better to drop its hesitance in making abilities work differently in various areas of the game. Yes, it’s an admirable design intention to want to have the abilities work as similarly as possible across different playstyles. But sometimes this design concept is impractical given specific cases, and I don’t think Blizzard acknowledges this enough. Sure, they may have changed CC to work differently in PvE and PvP, and made some spells work a tad different between PvP and PvE, but they should really consider making more tweaks than they have. And they should also be open to considering differences in the way abilities work between RBGs and arenas, as well.

For example, I’m not sure if it was changed at all in 4.2, but smoke bomb was so powerful in RBGs that rogues were the must-have class for them. If you didn’t have one, your ability to kill a FC or to decimate a healer or dangerous DPSer at a heavily-contested node was much more difficult than it needed to be. This is because you often had such a large force of DPS in any given area, that smoke bomb would increase the likelihood of killing an individual by probably a thousand percent (and maybe more). That’s an amazing advantage! But its strength in arena is much more moderate. It’s definitely useful, but it doesn’t have the same impact it does in RBGs. Of course, smoke is only one ability. There is a myriad of abilities and ability combinations to consider in RBGs and arena. It is not a simple issue for Blizzard to consider or fix, even if I think they could be doing more to resolve it.

In short, Blizzard should try to balance the classes as much as possible, but we shouldn’t expect perfection. I would like to see them be a little more open to making changes in the way abilities work in different areas of the game, and that includes making abilities work different in RBGs and arena, when applicable.

Other than on these points, I think Ghostcrawler and his team do a decent job of trying to keep the classes balanced.

Tol Barad

Tol Barad is to Cataclysm what Wintergrasp was to Wrath. It is this expansion’s outdoor PvP zone. And it is full of nothing but problems. Unless your faction gets the jump on the defense at the very beginning of a match, it’s almost impossible to win.

The problem is simply that it is way too difficult to take all three nodes when the defense is mobilized. Once two nodes are taken, the defending faction will simply roll into the node with the least defense and steamroll anyone there to keep them from capping. So it becomes an endless cycle of capping and losing a node, until the offense runs out of time. If the offense is organized, it can certainly win, but Tol Barad is almost exclusively a pick-up group, since it randomizes who gets to enter a match.

The scenario just isn’t very well-designed for a match between two sides of mostly random people. And even though it deserves nearly a complete overhaul, Blizzard doesn’t seem to care about it.

How General Game Play Affects PvP

At a basic level, I don’t think PvP is all that bad in Cataclysm. It’s a simple concept putting two groups of people against each other, both with access to practically the same resources. You can’t really go wrong with this formula. The experience is automatically dynamic, because people are facing player-controlled opponents. And it is relatively balanced based on community adoption of the best compositions at the higher levels of competition.

Rather, the biggest issue is the fact that WoW’s engine has become archaic. In an era where a lot of competitive games have some awesome and fun mechanics that don’t rely merely on class or class-like functionality, WoW is missing a lot of these. Sure, we have CTF and capture-the-node style battlegrounds, but these are overly simple. You’re not hopping into a tank to cut a hole your opponent’s defense. You’re not activating your surface-to-air missiles to bring down a chopper. You’re performing simple tasks that add to the experience to (usually) only a minor degree.

Consider Team Fortress 2. If you’re playing a demoman, you can bounce your grenades off the walls and hopefully hit your enemies. This turns the concept of LOS completely on its head. Likewise, if you’re a demoman, you have to worry about killing yourself when using your grenade launcher in close proximity duels. A bad bounce off the ground or a wall can kill you, even if you do end up killing your opponent. As an alternative, you can switch to your shank. But whether or not that’s viable depends on the class trying to get all up in your grill.

 

WoW doesn’t really have too many scenarios like these, nor ability mechanics that are fun to kill and be killed by. I remember having a throwaway clan in an indie game called Nox where our sole purpose was to suicide as many times as possible in a match, all because it was hilariously fun. WoW is sort of missing that element of play.

I must also talk about crowd control and ability interruption. When these and dispels are the linchpins of PvP, the game ceases to reach its potential for fun. To me, there’s nothing exciting about getting interrupted every other cast when I’m around a shaman. There’s nothing exciting about getting trapped in a CC rotation lasting 15 some-odd seconds. The design should be re-focused on making the abilities used to kill, heal and (possibly) soak or avoid damage truly unique and entertaining.

This isn’t to say WoW doesn’t have such spells at all. They do. Thunderstorm, typhoon, heroic leap and leap of faith are all good examples. But the number of such spells are limited, and the impact of each is often situational. Also, some of the abilities lose their sense of uniqueness in simplicity. Take heroic charge, for example. You select someone and you charge them. You don’t have to aim your charge. You don’t run into a wall and stun or daze yourself if you miss. Your character automatically charges at your target, and you stun them for a short while. That’s really not that exciting to me, both as the person charging, and the person being charged. I don’t have to aim or carefully time my charge. Nor do I have to reactively dodge it, if I’m on the receiving end. You simply stun them, or you eat the stun. That’s it.

To complicate matters even further, what fun spells do exist often have numerous bugs. I can’t count the number of times I’ve fired off a typhoon, watched it pass through someone, and counted off “one one-thousand, two one-thousand” before it actually affects that person with the knockback. (I’m also sure people can’t count the number of times I’ve complained about this.)

While PvP is fun to some degree, it should be better than it is. But WoW’s engine is old. It would be incredibly difficult for Blizzard to fix the mechanical bugs, and expand the library of spells that are truly unique and fun to use. If they really wanted to do this, I imagine an engine re-code would be in order, and the server architecture and latency handling would also have to be revamped. There would also be a heap of balance issues to consider, and you would run the risk of making relatively new encounters obsolete if you want many of the new mechanics to also work in PvE.

I think the best Blizzard could do now is reconsider crowd control and ability interruption. But that would result only in minor improvements.

Conclusion

The addition of rated battlegrounds has been needed for a long time. That Cataclysm includes them at all is a godsend, despite their problems. But the game is coming closer and closer to being archaic in its design. At some point, there won’t be much more Blizzard could do to improve the experience, without redoing major parts of the engine and the game’s server architecture. And while that may prove to be impractical for Blizzard (especially because Blizzard seems intent on putting a lot of the revenue generated by WoW into other projects), there are still some things Blizzard can do. They can make some much-needed tweaks to the crowd control and interruption mechanics in PvP, and they can still increase the enjoyment factor for some spells and abilities. They can also create new spells and abilities (or vehicles or other systems) that would turn PvP on its head, without removing the spells that ensure PvE remains operational. But whether or not Blizzard is willing to make these changes, much less do them extremely well, is left to be seen. One thing’s certain: Cataclysm didn’t add or change enough for PvP to meet my expectations. And I didn’t exactly set them very high.

Cataclysm in Review: Writing, Lore & Storytelling

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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!

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