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.

Thank you, WoW art staff

image

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.

Now what?

This will be a disjointed post, but it reflects my current feelings about the game. I really don’t know where I am in my enjoyment of it, if indeed I am even still “enjoying” it. I just don’t know.

Last night I stepped out of the morass that is Draenor and revisited some of my favorite legacy areas. Places like Uldum, Tanaris, and all of Pandaria. I got out my favorite flying mount and swooped and soared to my heart’s content, taking in what I believe were Blizz’s finest art designs. Designs that cannot ever be truly appreciated from the ground, designs that inspire and delight when viewed from the air. This, I thought, this was Blizz at its best. This was art and design made by passionate, creative, talented people who loved what they did.

I dipped down in Pandaria and traveled awhile on my chopper, and I saw that this zone’s design was so rich that it gave me an entirely different experience on the ground — complex, varied, and with unexpected visual rewards just as I rounded a corner or trekked through a jungle.

The Blizz that designed Pandaria knew how to deliver a product for all of its player base. That Blizz welcomed challenge and met it head on, taking joy in showing they were more than a match for it. They gave us visual content at its very best.

But ultimately visiting these areas was sad for me, because I knew that I would never experience any of it again except by revisiting legacy areas. I realized that among other things it has done to weaken the game for me, Blizz has killed the joy of anticipation. I cannot make myself get excited over 6.2 because it will be nothing more than an undisguised rerun of the worst parts of WoD. More slogging around on the ground even at level, increased garrison chore load, even less relevant professions, class imbalances so great as to make some specs unplayable, crappy gear that can be bought with gold at prices as exorbitant and ridiculous as the Apexis crystal price, and “new” flying mounts that will never fly in Draenor or any future content and are just reskins of old mounts anyway.

Worse, I am so demoralized over this last weekend’s in-your-face announcement that I am pretty sure I won’t be able to work up any real enthusiasm over the next contraction expansion either. Blizz has made it clear that they are no longer about proudly doing the hard things and making them look easy. Instead, they are about cutting corners, about designing Potemkin Villages and telling us over and over how “rich” and “complex” they are, about setting up mechanisms that slow us down so we won’t notice there is very little content.

I doubt I will be logging on much for awhile. When 6.2 comes out, I’ll go through it at least with my hunters, because I’m not ready yet to give up raiding with my guild. But Tanaan will be simply a necessary means to an end, something to get through rather than enjoy.

The sad thing is, the fun I used to have running old dungeons and visiting old content is gone now. I used to have fun running Firelands for the mount, but now really what’s the point? Even if I get the drop, all I will be able to do with that magnificently-drawn mount in any current content is waddle around on the ground with it. Whoopie.

So thanks, Blizz, thanks for sucking the fun out of not only the current content, but also past and future contents.

I have started looking into Final Fantasy XIV. The new expansion, Heavensward, looks very promising and launches June 19 for early play, June 23rd for those who do not preorder. I did download the free 14 day trial on the current xpac, but unfortunately was unable to make it playable on my VMware Windows box — could not get more than 6 fps. (Yes, I play games on a Mac, don’t judge.) But Heavensward has a native Mac download, so I am very hopeful. I will definitely give it a serious try.

I am debating whether to unsub from WoW in the near future. Part of me says it would make a (microscopic) statement of protest, part of me says wait until after 6.2, part of me says get real you know you will stay with this game until the bitter end so quit fooling yourself. (Sometimes I do talk rather sternly to myself.)

I am foolishly now waiting to see what Blizz has to say for itself in the June 6 “Q&A” which clearly will be Watcher “A-ing” bogus watered-down “Q’s” designed to show brief “concern” over the reaction to the no flying decision and then quickly moving on to how exciting and content-packed 6.2 will be. The most I am expecting regarding flying is some vague hand-waving semi-promising to “relook” it possibly maybe in the future in some limited fashion, in hopes that those of us who want it to happen will be gullible enough to hang on and buy the next xpac. (Hey, that approach has worked for over a year, no reason it shouldn’t keep on working.)

Like the little kid diligently searching for a pony when presented with a room full of horse manure, I am furiously digging through this game to find the fun I know has to be hidden somewhere. Sadly, it is that reaction that makes me exactly the kind of player Blizz has come to love. . . .