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.

Mists of memory

What was your favorite expansion in WoW? Mine — and I know lots of people will disagree with me on this — was Mists of Pandaria. Looking back, it was the expansion where everything seemed to mesh in a seamless game experience.

Start with the story line. I am someone who is generally completely uninterested in the lore of this game, but I was intrigued by the whole Pandaren story, and honestly the pop culture pseudo-Eastern philosophy touches enhanced the experience for me. I rolled a panda monk, and I remember being delighted when the initial quest line revealed the nature of the starting island. I am an Alliance player through and through, but I liked the idea that Pandaren could choose their faction path upon leaving the island. I became very intrigued with the whole Wrathion enigma, and I am sorry we have not seen him since — I found him to be a compelling character.

I enjoyed — and still do — the racial “personality” of the Pandaren. It seems that Blizz really put a lot of effort into giving them a depth and complexity beyond anything I had experienced with other races in the game. Many of my characters are Night Elves, but honestly I never really gave much thought to them as a distinct people in Azeroth, for some reason they just have never made much of an impression on me beyond having a certain cosmetic look that I like.  But Pandaren are wonderful — individuals can be good or treacherous, fiercely loyal or despicably traitorous, wise or vapid. They are fierce fighters and make great soldiers, but they also love the hearth and make equally great innkeepers. They like good food and good beer and sharing it with any weary traveler.

I thought the monk class introduced in Mists was one of the most innovative Blizz has ever come up with. Each of the specs had unique and intriguing mechanics that were not just variations of every other class. My Panda monk was a mistweaver, and I really enjoyed the healing play style that was completely different from any other in the game at the time. She was also powerful enough in her damage dealing that I leveled as a MW and never had a problem. Legion’s Demon Hunters and the hunter Survival spec, in my opinion, pale in comparison to the creativity we saw with the monk class.

Starting the expansion, I remember being just blown away by the graphics. I found Pandaria to be breathtakingly beautiful. Every zone had one or more areas of surpassing wonder, and I still visit them when I need a break from the grind that has been WoD and Legion. I still enjoy swooping and soaring over the amazing beaches of Krasarang Wilds, and the windswept vistas of Kun-Lai Summit are balm to my soul. I have a particular fondness for Zouchin Village — something about the colors, the setting, the ambient sounds always makes me think of one of those glorious days in early spring, when you can smell the earth as it warms and see the first signs of new growth even though the air still has a slight taste of winter chill in it. If I ever quit this game, I will take each of my characters to Zouchin Village and let them end their existence there.

Certainly there were down sides to Mists, but in retrospect they were pretty tame. I thought the quest lines were coherent and connected with each other nicely. With the exception of Heart of Fear (I called it “Bugistan”), I liked the raids. I enjoyed scenarios. I loved that you could actually earn gear, not just roll the dice for it. I did not especially like the long rep grind that served as a gate to other aspects of the game, but in retrospect that was a piece of cake compared to Legion’s approach of making every character have to raid or run Mythic instances in order to advance any aspect of their end game play. I even kind of enjoyed the chase after the legendary cloak (except fo the PvP requirements), so much so that I got it on all but one of my alts.

Speaking of alts, I thought Mists was perfect for alt play. There was incentive to level them, because that is when you got flying for each, and I thought that was a fun reward for reaching level 90. There was also ample opportunity to actually play your alts, without the pressure of having to run instances or raids in order to do so. There were dailies, scenarios, and eventually there was Timeless Isle, where you could run dailies in 30 minutes or so — enough time to get some proficiency with your alts, but not so onerous as to feel like a grind (except for the frog killing zone, that is). You could max out alt professions with a single grind for faction rep, and then you could actually *gasp!* get some good out of your professions by crafting items or gathering mats for decent profit in the auction house. And you did not have to gear them all up to raid level gear in order to enjoy them.

I liked a lot of other miscellaneous things about Mists. I thought the Noodle Cart was fun and different, and I really liked being able to provide my raid group with noodles. (I think we could have predicted problems with Nomi, given what a little smart ass he was in Mists: “Who are you supposed to be?”) I actually liked getting individual rep with the Tillers in Valley of the Four Winds, and all of my alts became Besties with every Tiller, spending hours zooming around looking for dirt piles containing the treasures so dear to each of their hearts. I think much of this particular attraction for me was the reward of adding enhancements to Sunsong Ranch, a place I still like to spend a night in once in a while. It is the closest we have ever come — or sadly are likely to — to player housing in this game.

Mists was when I really came into my own as a Survival hunter. I spent hours practicing in front of the target dummies, I played with lots of rotations and talent builds. I learned how to configure and use Weakauras. I finally mastered the iconic hunter “turn around jump shot” by repeatedly running along the front of the Shrine, first practicing the “reverse disengage” mechanic — run, turn around and jump and DE and turn around again before landing — then adding in a Concussive Shot after the jump but before the disengage. I regret that this skill has deteriorated since then, but for a while I was pretty damn good at it. Survival was fantastic fun to play back then, possibly the zenith of hunter play in WoW. It makes me sad to compare it to BM play now in Legion.

So, yeah, I think Mists is the best expansion Blizz has given us. Unlike WoD and Legion, it seemed “finished”, like a well-designed final product, not like a drawing-board concept constantly being adjusted. I know a lot of people were frustrated that it dragged on for so long, but I was never bored with it, not even in the waning months. It was an expansion where I felt like all my goals were attainable, where I felt like I could set my own play parameters and have fun, whether it was in advancing my main or practicing with an alt or making some gold or just admiring the artwork. It seemed like an individual game back then, not like an assembly line.

Enough reminiscence. Time for a holiday weekend, with Zouchin Village spring weather.

Pandas in the Mist

No game expansion is ever perfect, but some are way less perfect than others. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why I am so fed up with Warlords of Draenor after just three months, and why I was so engaged in Mists up to the bitter end. Both expansions had their problems, both had some very nifty innovations. I suspect if it were possible to list all of the hundreds of thousands of features of both expansions and compare the lists, we would find only a small percentage are different in any meaningful way. I wish I could do such a dispassionate study, because I think it would be fascinating (yeah, I know I’m a geek), but since it really is not feasible, I am stuck with listing the features that matter to me and doing a subjective analysis.

Rather than list all the things wrong with WoD, I thought it might be more useful to list the things that kept me interested in Mists. This turned out to be a harder exercise than I thought it would be. But here’s what I came up with:

1.  Pandas. Before Mists went live, there was a lot of criticism of Blizz for going all squishy and cutesy and anime. I was pretty doubtful myself, but somehow it all worked for me once I got into it. I am not into WoW lore at all, but I found the entire Pandaria story line both cohesive and intriguing. I thought the pseudo-Eastern philosophy bits worked well. I thought the story flowed well as a follow-on to Cataclysm. I liked the Pandaren. I found them to be fierce, funny, loyal, sneaky, spiritual, worldly, principled, and flawed all at once. Very human, in other words.

2.  Pandaria. The landscape graphics were breathtaking, I thought. That quest in Kun-Lai Summit where you took the balloon ride up to Zouchin Village just blew me away with its beauty. The beaches and endless blue water in Krasarang never lost their ability to draw me in, and make me close my eyes, take a long slow breath, and smile. Valley of the Four Winds reminded me of the Midwest farmland where I grew up, and it just felt right every time I went there. Which was often, once I had my own little farm-house. Every zone in Pandaria had something special for me in terms of ambience or scenery or both.

3.  Raids, instances, and scenarios. I did a lot of random heroics in Mists, through the dungeon finder and as part of guild groups. They were interesting, balanced well for the intended gear level, and awarded valor points. I was less a fan of scenarios, but I did a lot of them because they were a quick and fun way — once again — to pick up valor points. As for raids, even though my guild team was extremely slow in clearing them, they were all very logical progressions in terms of expected gear and skill levels. (Although I will admit I was at the point of screaming every time I saw the entrance to Heart of Fear because it felt like we spent months in there. I dubbed it Bugistan.)

4.  Alts. Partly due to the reasonable difficulty progression for instances, partly due to class balance especially while leveling and gearing up, partly due to the useful rewards you could get from valor points, leveling and gearing alts was fun in Mists. I love my hunters and will never main any other class, but I really enjoyed gearing up and raiding once in a while with my Mistweaver and my Destro Lock. Heck, I even did it a few times on my mage.

5.  Pandas (the ones you can create). Having a new race and class to play with was kind of exciting. It gave me a good reason to roll a new character and explore the fun I could have with it. In fact, my choosing a Panda Monk is one reason I got so engaged with Pandaria, I think.

6.  Professions. You had to work at them to level them, especially certain ones like JC and LW. But most of them were very reliable gold makers once you got them leveled. Even the gathering professions were profitable if you didn’t put too high a value on your time, and some nights I found it very relaxing just to fly around and pick herbs or mine ore or skin critters, maybe along with some friendly guild chat going on. Mindless, stress-reducing, and there was all that beautiful scenery to look at.

7.  Dailies and weeklies. I will admit I hated them during that period when everyone was fighting for faction rep, but now that they are gone I kind of miss them. Timeless Isle quickly lost its attraction for me, but I faithfully ground out dailies and weeklies on it on all my alts up to the end of Mists. Why? Currencies that actually led to useful gear or other goals, for one thing. For another, it was something relaxing to do if you didn’t have anything else on your agenda. And it was a way to practice skills on alts you might not play very often.

8.  Time commitment. I never felt like I HAD to log in on every alt every day. Once a week, certainly, and maybe a quick daily cooldown login if I were crafting something for sale or use. But even at the height of the reputation dailies, I never felt like I didn’t have lots of time for the fun stuff. I played no more than I do now, but in Mists I felt like I had tons of time to explore the game in whatever way appealed to me at the moment, and still complete any “tasks” I had set for myself.

9.  Flying. There. I said it. Much of the enjoyment I got out of Mists was due in no small part to the fact that I did not have to fight annoying mobs just to get somewhere to do whatever I was interested in that evening. I could take in vast panoramic views of what I think is still the most beautiful scenery in the game. I could easily and quickly join a meandering group of guildies if they were hunting rares. It was a terrific motivation for leveling alts, even ones I rarely played. It gave me immense pleasure, and it allowed me to be truly “immersed” — to use a phrase currently popular with Blizz devs —  in Pandaria.

I am not saying I was not critical of many facets of Mists, I certainly ranted about lots of things. Ranting is sort of what I do. But I think each of the factors I listed above added up in a way that made the whole greater than the sum. Together, they made the expansion seamless in its story line, its characters, its game experience. They added up to fun for me. If I were to list the main things that make Draenor not fun for me, it would likely consist of adding “not” to everything I just wrote.

Therein lies the difference.