The way home

This post contains a few spoilers. Skip it if you are sensitive to that kind of thing.

I am frequently very hard on Blizz, especially when it comes to what I believe is their inability to carry out a clear and cohesive expansion, one where each individual piece contributes to a well-stated strategic message for the expansion. What often starts out as a nicely-encapsulated picture nearly always disintegrates into an everything-bagel mashup in which it seems like every dev with a half-baked idea gets to throw something into the mix, regardless of how — or even if — the idea is synchronized with the stated theme. And in the coming months, as we learn more about Battle for Azeroth, I am sure I will continue to berate Blizz for this constant shortcoming.

But today I am going to hand out a compliment: At least so far, I think Blizz is doing a bang-up job of preparing the path back to Azeroth for us.

In past expansions, we do not really get any prep for the next one until the very tail end. Usually the prep is in the form of a major patch that among other changes introduces a quest line or two, or some mechanism, to transition to the next expansion. In WoD, we had the worldwide invasion scenarios, for example. These were designed pragmatically to allow us to catch up alts and prepare them minimally for Legion (and also to give us something to do in the waning days of WoD), but story-wise they laid the groundwork for the Legion experience and ultimately taking the battle to the Legion’s own planet.

In the current expansion, I am seeing a subtle difference in that approach. I have no information on the release date for BfA, but most prognosticators think we are about a year out from it. Yet even this far out we are getting some major transitional mechanics for it, and the data mining for 7.3.5 tells us there are a lot more such transitional mechanics in the works.

Already, for example, the defeat of Argus in the new raid tier removes the ugly scar of the broken planet from Azerothian skies. (I assume this will be visible to all players as soon as the final LFR wing opens.) No longer does this epic fight for our survival consume every waking moment, no longer are we reminded of the looming danger every time we glance at the sky.

Patch 7.3.5 goes further. We will see our artifact weapons start to phase out. We will see the groundwork laid to establish homes for the Allied Races, thus placing Legion’s Broken Shores zones into historical context as the place where we met and formed relationships with these new races.

So, probably a full year out from BfA, we are getting the sense that the war is almost over. We won. And now, fulfilling the dream of soldiers everywhere, we are going home. As in real wars, though, going home is not an immediate thing. There is equipment to clean and repair and turn in, there are a million administrative tasks to complete before we can actually get on that plane, there are security promises to allies that must be fulfilled. But there is an undeniable change: We are no longer engaged in a struggle for our very existence, we have emerged victorious from those dark days, and we are ever so slowly bound for home.

I do not know if this kind of attitude shift was Blizz’s intent, or if more practically they just need to start surreptitiously testing some of the major planned BfA changes and 7.3.5 seems like the ideal cover for it since the beta seems nowhere close yet. Whatever the reason, from an immersion™ standpoint, it works for me. I really feel like we have won a long campaign, and now we can go home with our heads held high. If Blizz can maintain this trend, the transition to BfA will be in my opinion the smoothest ever in the game. (Of course, I think we should go home to our own player housing, but that is a complaint for another day.)

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

(Requiem, by Robert Louis Stevenson)

“Going home” evokes some of the warmest emotions anyone can express in any language.  It feels good. Nicely done, Blizz.

Argus – second week

I am going to reserve my final opinion on Patch 7.3 and the whole Argus zone until after next week, which will give us nearly all we are going to see with it, but I have to say so far I am pretty underwhelmed. Absent some hugely fun new thing next week, I cannot see myself spending much time there once my main has gotten the rep to be allowed to buy some of the quality of life gizmos which in my opinion we should have had from the start of the patch. I am mainly talking about:

  • Whistle. Blizz, in its most patronizing and stingy fashion, is allowing us to spend 500 gold to “upgrade” our Legion whistle so that it will work on Argus, but only after we have ground out revered with the Argussian Reach. And just to make sure we get a sufficient amount of misery, they have apparently gone to some pains to ensure it will take several weeks to gather that rep.

I am not at all trying to start another huge emotional player fight about flying versus no flying, but here’s the thing: It is hard to not get the impression that Blizz is doing everything they possibly can to stubbornly dig in their heels and force players into slogging about on the ground for as long as they can in as many places they can, through as many obstacles and mobs as they can manage.

It is as if, having let the flying toothpaste out of the tube years ago, they spend every resource possible trying to cram it back in. They clearly hate that players can fly in the game, and since their attempt to remove it from all future expansions died a horrible death back in WoD, they are in sullen teenager mode over it, kicking dirt and muttering and pouting every step of the way.

The fact of the matter is — no matter how Blizz may protest it is not the case — that designing zones for flying takes significantly more resources than designing them for ground travel. The WoW franchise is becoming less and less of a moneymaker for Blizz as well as for the larger corporate structure of Activision-Blizzard, and they are cutting more and more resources from it with every patch and expansion. I would honestly have more respect for them if they would just come out and admit this, rather than patronize us with the whole “immersion” excuse or the “we never have flying on an island” one.

I could possibly buy into the “We never allow flying in a patch zone expansion, look at Timeless Isle for example” argument, but the fact is that ever since Mists, Blizz has made us jump through more and longer hoops to get flying for every expansion. (In Mists, as soon as you hit max level you got flying capability.) Part of that strategy is coming home to roost with them on Argus, since completion of the Legion flying quest line for many players came very close to coinciding with the release of 7.3, giving these players the impression that they just got flying only to have Blizz yank it away from them immediately, and causing them — with some justification — to howl in the forums.

Blizz was not required to implement flying in the game in the first place, but they did so in order to increase their player base and ultimately their bottom line. It was a business decision that they thought was appropriate at the time. Fine. But I recall that some devs, like Greg Street, warned there would be no going back once it was done, and that is absolutely the case. They are stuck with it, try though they might to throw a continuous tantrum over it and push its implementation further and further away with every expansion.

Argus is not Timeless Isle, nor is it Quel’Danas. (And for the record, the late patch zone in WoD, Tanaan, allowed flying, just sayin’.) In my opinion, Blizz should have designed it with some relatively short path to flying, if for no other reason than they were such dicks about the quest line for Legion flying. But they didn’t, and it will not happen now. But for crying out loud, do they have to also be mega-dicks about the lousy whistle?

  • Permanent augment rune. As was done in Tanaan, there is a permanent augment rune available for purchase once you become exalted with Army of the Light. The good news is, it is a lot easier to get rep with this faction than with the Argussian Reach. The bad news is, even after you become exalted, the damned rune costs 45,000 gold.

Yeah, I know there has been huge inflation in the game. (I won’t indelicately point out Blizz caused this themselves when they had to resort to massive gold giveaways in WoD just to bribe people into playing. Okay, I will. Yet another bad decision they cannot now undo and so are making players suffer as a result.)

But 45,000 gold for a rune? The current Defiled Augment Rune goes for about 150 gold on my server, and I suspect as more people shell out for the permanent rune the temp one will take a real nosedive in value. You can buy literally hundreds of temp runes for 45,000 gold. (300 at 150g, 450 at 100g, 900 if it goes down to 50g which is I think likely.) And as far as I know, LFR will keep awarding them, so I do not anticipate a shortage.

I have plenty of gold, but something in me balks at spending 45k for a damn rune that I will use only for raids. It just smacks of price gouging, and I do not like it, nor do I see why Blizz has priced it that way PLUS gated it behind rep. It is a mean-spirited “gotcha” that feels like someone is going “BWAAHAHA! Let’s make the little boogers work their asses off for it! My bonus goes up the higher we can force our MAU!”

Let’s see, what else am I underwhelmed about on Argus so far? Oh yeah, invasions. I honestly do not see myself doing very many of these. So far, the loot has been non-existent for me, and to be honest they are not really that fun. I really enjoyed the ones at the end of WoD, loved flying off to a place in old Azeroth to join in with dozens of other players, liked that even low level alts could do them and get really decent gear, liked that they had a set pattern of beginning, middle and end phases. I think a lot of people really enjoyed them.

So why, given a winning design, did Blizz feel compelled to “improve” on them, pretty much destroying much of the fun in the process?

The Argus invasions feel like just another daily or weekly quest, with worse loot potential. And getting an alt attuned to even get to Argus is no quick or easy thing. I put a new alt into the zone over the weekend — it had already been on Broken Shore, so I was not starting from zero. Even so, it took me well over 2 hours (closer to 3) to jump through all the Argus hoops to get to invasions, not to mention opening up Mac’Aree. And this process, I assume, will get even longer once the Week 3 requirements kick in. With WoD invasions, I could just hop on a (flying!) mount and jump into the fray with an alt. And once in the invasion scenario, I could fly madly from point to point, taking part in areas of the scenario I thought I could be most useful in. It was great fun. Argus is just not.

And I am not even talking about the Greater Invasions. I have done several of the Greater ones, either for myself or to help out guildies, and they are insipid and boring (the Greater invasions, not the guildies…). They have less complex phase structure than the WoD ones, they are not fun to gallivant around in, the bosses are only tedious not interesting, and the loot really stinks. On top of that, you have to participate in smaller ones every week just to be able to do them, and more often than not fight your way through mobs just to get to the portal.

Nope. I’ll do a few initially, I am sure, but there is absolutely nothing in these that makes me want to spend more time on Argus. I thought the demon invasions in Legion were a poor shadow of the fun of the WoD invasions, and I think the Argus ones are even worse.

So I am waiting until the reset Tuesday, hoping there will finally be something that makes Argus a desirable location for me. But I have not seen anything so far, and honestly I am not especially optimistic.

Demon You-Know-Whats

I feel kind of a duty to write about Demon Hunters today, since yesterday I and a few million of my closest friends (I am sure some of you were among them, did you see me wave?) dipped a toe into those green fel waters. I spent enough time with my new DH to get to level 100 and knock out a couple of invasion scenarios, so understand from this that I am still basically at the “roll face on keyboard” stage of proficiency.

Before I get started with a few comments about the actual experience, I have to point out what I think is the worst part of this new class: the name. To me, it is yet another poke at hunters from the people at Blizz who seem to have the mission of destroying us as a unique class — “Haha, Hunters, even your name will no longer be unique!!” If you are someone who does not have a hunter as a main, think how you would feel if Blizz had opted to call the new class Demon Warrior, Demon Death Knight, Demon Mage, Demon Shaman, etc. I know it is not a big thing, but it is a thing, and coming along with the batch of other ill-advised and class-altering changes to hunters, it just seems to pour salt in the wound.

Anyway, my first impressions of the DH, Broken Shores, and initial invasion experiences.

Technical issues. I did not experience any show-stopping ones, but there were plenty of major annoyances — frequent disconnects, periods of huge lag, login issues, getting ported out of the Broken Shores scenario once and having to start it all over, and a weird thing with non-DH alts where I was locked out of my garrison. Also, the new CRZ seems still broken in a big way — one small group I was in could not seem to get phased into the same server at the same time, and there were a couple of hairy times when the only people I could see fighting parts of an invasion scenario were myself and 2-3 others (we died frequently, and once the scenario reset completely from the beginning).

I suppose Blizz considers the rollout a success, but when you think about it, they have been testing the crap out of this for months now, and still much of it played like a beta version. Let’s just say it did nothing to boost my confidence in what will happen the day Legion launches.

DH starting area and initial leveling. OK, this was fun. While I am not a fan of dark gloomy spaces in this game, I thought the DH starting area of Mardum was downright panoramic in terms of the space, the artwork, the story line, everything. It drew me in, in a way that the DK starting place never was able to. Huge kudos to the team that designed this experience.

The leveling process from 98 to 100 went fast. I am slow, and it only took me a bit over two hours. The leveling quests are all pretty easy, pegged to the spells you have available and increasing a tiny bit in challenge as you get new ones. The starting quests also give you a little bump in gear, and it is organized to upgrade your green starter gear one slot at a time with few if any duplicates.

As I mentioned, the story line is well integrated with the quests, and it does an excellent job of establishing the whys and wherefores of Demon Hunters. By the time you are out of the starting area, you really have a sense of class identity and of the role the class is to play in Legion.

While I enjoyed most of the cutscenes, I did find a few of them tedious. In particular, the final cutscene, where your DH is being set free from Mardum, was far too long and frankly boring. For one thing, it is not a true movie-like cutscene, it is more of an edgy comic book animation that was interesting to me because of the artwork for about 20 seconds, after which I realized the dialogue was mostly insipid filler. I literally went downstairs, made a sandwich, and the scene was still droning on by the time I carried the sandwich back upstairs.

DH playstyle. Honestly, I have no idea about this. The double jumping, the space-bar induced wings when you are falling, the combat moves that cause you to careen forward and backwards, the near-invulnerability of Metamorphosis — all these are great fun, no question about it. Also quite powerful. By the time my DH got to ilevel 687, she was often doing 40-50k DPS, even with me knowing zero about how to optimize her play.

What this says to me is that some gigantic nerfs will be forthcoming. Some of my guildies reported last night that they were unable to get into any raids with their DHs because Blizz was not yet allowing it — there was an error message to that effect. I think that means Blizz understands that DHs are overpowered, that without some major adjustments many WoD raid achievements will be rendered trivial with heavy DH teams. I don’t follow developments in PvP, but there is no way some of the DH abilities will ever make it into that venue, in my opinion.

As an aside, one interesting thing about DHs is that they currently only have two levels of talents — 99 and 100. It seems their talent structure will be an anomaly for WoW classes, as the levels once Legion goes live will be: 99, 100, 102, 104, 106, 108, 110. They will end up with the same number of tiers as other classes, but the tier numbers will be different. ??

As to raiding with DHs in Legion, we will have to see what happens. I hope raids and instances have not been designed with the current DH abilities in mind, because that would mean each team would be more or less required to have a DH member for some fights. (“Bring the class, not the player,” which I am sure is what Blizz has always said, right? …. “Four legs good, two legs better!“) The alternative would seem to be to design raids to specifically guard against DH advantages. In the absence of either of these strategies, we will likely be in for a long series of DH nerfs as players discover how to “beat” the game venues.

Late edit: It’s possible that the only restriction on DH participation in raids, etc., is a 24-hr one, to preclude people continually re-rolling a new DH to get around lockouts. I did not attempt to queue for any, so I did not actually see the error message.

My final word (for today) on DHs is that, while very fun and innovative, this seems to be an unfinished class still in its beta form for all practical purposes. I think that, once again, Blizz has failed to fully anticipate the cascading effects of these new mechanics. It may only now be dawning on them that there are rippling effects throughout much of the game, and we will certainly be seeing some fairly wild back and forth swings as they discover what has been broken by introducing this class.

Broken Shores scenario. It’s well done, well designed, and a well told story. (When it does not glitch.) That said, I am very glad Blizz has allowed us to opt out of it for alts once we have done it on one character.

Another late edit: Apparently Blizz has not implemented this option (to skip) in live. If you have 10 alts, you will be doing BS scenario 10 times. Ugh. I sincerely hope that does not mean they have reversed themselves on the policy — being able to skip was a great quality of life improvement.

Invasions. I only did a couple of these last night, so I don’t have much experience with them. (But I can say for absolute certainty that Azshara has to be given some new cemeteries — the trek back to your body if you die is nothing short of brutal right now.) They seem challenging enough without being impossible (unless the CRZ god has awarded you only a couple of players, in which case they are far too “challenging”). As there are multiple phases to each one, they do take a while to complete, 20 minutes or so was my experience — a lot longer if the group is having a problem downing the last couple of mini bosses.

Completing each phase, along with the entire scenario, grants you Nethershards, a currency you can redeem for 700-level blue gear (some of which can be upgraded) and transmog sets. What this means for me is that I will probably try to do all of them on my DH, since that is the alt most in dire need of gear.

All in all, I give the new stuff from this build a semi-enthusiastic thumbs up. For now. But I still wish they would change the new class’s name.