Hell — I am not a fan

Spoiler alert. There are some very minor 7.3 spoilers in this post, don’t read any further if that bothers you.

I have not played a lot of WoW the past few days, but I did get a chance to dip my toe into the 7.3 PTR. As a disclaimer, it was just a taste, I did not even get out of the starting area — I completed a couple of quests and looked around a bit. So I really can’t comment on anything to do with content. What I can comment on is the environment: Argus appears to be yet another ugly, rocky, brimstone-spewing chunk of hell. In fact, to me it seemed remarkably similar to Broken Shore in its landscaping and artwork. It is not a genre I am fond of.

In general, I am impressed with Blizz’s zone designs and the incredibly painstaking detail they put into every aspect of a new zone — geologic formations, roads, vegetation, building structures, animals, even insects. As I have mentioned before, I was positively blown away by the majestic, sweeping vistas of Pandaria. I think that was the high water mark of zone design for Blizz.

I understand that it is a matter of personal taste, but I just do not like slogging through dark, dismal, or scorched-earth areas. To enjoy the experience, I much prefer jungles or woods or farmland or deserts or mountains or even urban areas. I still love Uldum, for example, with its oasis areas interspersed with vast desert landscapes. I love that you can see the blowing sand and even hear it. Similarly, I am drawn to Pandaria’s Kun-Lai Summit and to the beaches of Krasarang Wilds. These zones are balm to my brain, and I still visit them every couple of weeks just to experience the peacefulness they impart. I select my favorite flying mount, and I swoop and soar and just immerse myself in the beauty.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that the esthetic experience of the game is important to me. As it happens, I like the kinds of zones I just described, but I know not everyone is alike, so there are undoubtedly many players who prefer dank, depressing, dismal zones devoid of vegetation, where the only “wildlife” is a species of cockroach that crunches under your feet or creepy spiders and vicious hyena-like creatures. To each his or her own.

But personally I don’t like it, and to me nothing represents this barrenness more than Broken Shore. So I was disappointed to see that at least the starting area on Argus is just more of the same.

There is another aspect to this, and it is what I perceive to be a fascination with destruction on the part of the WoW developers. Time and again, we have seen beautiful zones made ugly with destruction in the game. Some of it certainly has to do with the story of how evil and nasty “they” (Deathwing, the Legion, etc.) are, of course. But Blizz seems to take special delight in destruction scenarios. I will never forgive them for what they did to the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, for example. They took what was a fantastic end of quest line — a triumphant and emotional homecoming to an ancestral land of surpassing beauty — and rather than allow this small victory to stand, they turned the homeland into an ugly, scarred area of desolation and hopelessness.

Expansions like Pandaria and Legion start out with beautiful imagery in their zones, but seem to disintegrate into ugliness, at least in part. Broken Shore is only a bare-knuckled place of struggle and death, not a place anyone would choose to spend time in voluntarily. And now, the very image of Argus — a huge fire-spewing planet on the verge of exploding, filling the Legion sky — is a constant reminder of even more destruction to come, destruction that will be carried out, apparently, in a grim landscape devoid of beauty or softness or the gentle warmth of sunshine. It will be just another chunk of hell.

I know Blizz is hardcore on the philosophy of being on a constant war footing in WoW. I get that it is conflict that is interesting, not peace and happiness. But honestly that is getting kind of old for me. I am weary of always operating out of beleaguered temporary camps or cities in hiding.  I need respite once in a while, a break to appreciate beauty and peace even in small corners of this virtual world. I don’t want every end game quest to occur on barren chunks of rock. I don’t want the places I find attractive to be destroyed — because it seems like our side in WoW will never win, and the destruction will linger forever. Blizz should at least give us some hope.

As I said, I only dipped my toe into the PTR. Maybe there will be places of surpassing beauty on Argus. I want there to be signs that beings actually live there, raise their children and build their homes there, even if those beings are enemies sworn to destroy us. I would like to see some signs of life once in a while, not constant death and decay. Unfortunately, I am not optimistic. The next time we get anything close to that in a new zone is likely to be the start of a new expansion.

See you all Monday.

Thank you, WoW art staff

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Over the weekend I spent some time — as I often do at the end of expansions — just flying around, doing some farming, picking up a couple minor achievements here and there, and swooping down now and then to investigate something interesting. My favorite way to do this is at the end of a long day, with a glass of good wine and a carefully-selected playlist of my favorite tunes. I find it incredibly stress-relieving.

Every time I spend an evening like this, I realize that the graphic beauty of this game is a major reason I have stuck with it as long as I have. It is a stunning visual experience, in my opinion, one unmatched by any other MMO out there. I am awe-struck not only by the conceptual rendering of each zone, but also by the genius of imagination that designs them and carries that design through to the tiniest detail.

This is not to say I love every zone in the WoW world. I do not. Appreciation of art is, of course, highly personal, and art that speaks to me is that which lifts my soul and makes my heart soar. So I am not a big fan of the dark and dismal places in Azeroth, I prefer the zones with vast sweeping vistas — colorful life-filled jungles, gentle rolling plains, farmland, clean-swept deserts, high cold mountain ranges, blue beaches as far as the eye can see. Still, I can admire the artistry of even the zones I find depressing and dank.

Of all the areas in WoW, I return most often to Pandaria, where I find something in every zone to make me catch my breath for the sheer beauty. The area around Zouchin in Kun-Lai Summit is not only breathtaking, but for some reason it makes me think of early spring — I can almost feel the still-crisp air combined with the green of new grass and the feeling that the ground is thawing, the kind of weather I loved as a kid enduring the frozen winters of Minnesota.

The seemingly-endless beaches in southern Krasarang wilds are nothing short of balm for the soul. Whenever I go there, I can smell the sea salt and feel the warmth of the sand. Especially when real life deals blizzards, I love to log in, go to Krasarang, strip down to my virtual underwear, and stand with my elf toes in the surf, maybe fishing, maybe not. The artistry of gentle foam washing over sand is just spectacular. Similarly, when real life summer becomes oppressive for the heat and humidity, I can take a quick trip to the cold, barren, snow-swept heights of the high mountains of Kun-Lai Summit and feel almost shivery. The art is that good.

Not to reopen any emotional debate, but a large part of my appreciation for the game’s artistic genius comes from the mechanic of flying. For me, there is no other way to grasp the grandeur of artistic vistas than to swoop and soar and see them from many perspectives. Sometimes I like to appreciate them from a lofty view, hovering g as long as I want in a given area, and sometimes I like to jump off my mount and dig my toes I to the sand. But I adore having a choice for how to best view and experience anything. It is, in my opinion, one of the last spectacular aspects of the game.

The one part of art I find lacking in the game is the rendering of gear, especially tier armor. Again, I realize this is entirely subjective, but honestly I find every tier set for every class to be tedious, over-drawn, uninspirational, and universally ugly. Even for hunters, I cannot tell one tier set apart from another, except for those sets distinguished by some particularly odious design such as a dead animal for a helmet or condominium-sized shoulders. Blizz may have genius artists, but they pretty much stink as fashion designers.

I have been hard on Blizz lately, but my frustration with the game stems from a management failure to professionally carry out a cohesive and organized design project. They seem incapable of meshing mechanics and class design, they remain dismissive of their customers, unable to integrate the project parts into a single goal, and overall they seem to be just mailing it in for WoW, as if they are only serving time until they can move on the hot new franchises.

But, except for crappy armor, I am still delighted with the work of the artists. They are not exactly unsung heroes of this game, but they certainly seem to be under-appreciated.

Anyway, thanks, WOW art staff, you are still doing a heck of a job.