Sunday, June 29, 2014

Shadowmoon Valley First Impressions

Right now, I have not been able to progress all that far in Shadowmoon Valley because of the usual Beta difficulties, and a specific quest that, rather than putting the player who turned it in into a different phase temporarily, it puts everyone in the zone into that phase, interrupting combat and making all NPCs disappear, and making the whole server work harder.

But that said, what I have seen of Shadowmoon is very cool.

For one thing, it looks utterly different from Shadowmoon Valley of BC. It's all blue and purple vegetation over a colorful night sky, and lots of Draenei architecture.

Very soon after you arrive, you make camp at Lunarfall, which is where you build your Garrison. Lunarfall, also known as "Character Name"'s Outpost, is phased and actually seems to technically be its own zone, like how Thunder Bluff is separate from Mulgore. Shortly after building the place, you get your first follower, build your first building, and basically get the briefest taste of how the Garrison will work.

From there, you set out into the zone.

There are clear storyline missions, but the thing that struck me immediately is that there are many, many quests that you can just find if you explore a little. In addition, there are rare spawns and chests to find that add to your Garrison resources. There are also some areas with "bonus objectives," that are like quests, but you don't pick them up - they're just kind of there.

It looks like it will pay to stray from the beaten path. In a way, it's a rejection of the Cataclysm-era on-rails approach, though there are major quest chains through the zone that will most likely tell the story.

Another cool thing is that there seems to be a kind of evolution of the "Remote Questing" feature added in Cataclysm. Some quests will now simply update objectives as you complete them. For instance, you might be sent to find a prisoner in a cave.  You find him, and he's dead, so then the quest updates so that you now need to fend off an ambush. When the ambush is defeated, you then get new objectives to kill the leader of the guys who killed the prisoner.

It's very streamlined.

It also appears that there are legit group quests back in the game, though I imagine that if you are, like me, still sporting gear in the 550s, you might be able to solo them.

The zone feels really large, but then again, the first time you get into any zone, it will feel big. The map, however, seems to show the whole zone without needing things to be revealed, so you'll still be able to point yourself in the right direction if you want to find something.

Plotwise, I haven't gotten too far into it, but Ner'zhul is definitely the bad guy of the zone. However, so far, it still feels like a zone that is dominated by peaceful Draenei.

Beta First Impressions

The Beta for Warlords of Draenor has just begun. Right now, it has spurts of stability, and in those spurts, I've been able to play around with a few things:

First off: Classes and Rotations:

Some of the classes and specs feel practically unchanged. Frost DKs, for example, work almost exactly the same, except that they no longer have Raise Dead, but we still have Army (which is now Instant! No more having to pre-Army before the pull!)

Some, however, feel different.

Enhancement felt a lot better to me, and it's largely because Flurry now lets Haste lower the cool down of rotational abilities, like Sanctity of Battle. Now that Enhancement has this and Warriors have Headlong Rush, Haste is now speeds up everyone's rotations, which is great.

On the other hand, Arms feels totally out of whack, and lacks any real feel or core mechanic. I really hope that Blizzard takes another look at the Arms rotation. I actually think the Mists version is great as-is, though I think my favorite iteration of the spec was in Cataclysm. Right now on the Beta it has no procs, and has only Mortal Strike (which now costs Rage again,) Colossus Smash (with no Sudden Death) Whirlwind, and technically Thunder Clap, but you have to switch into Defensive Stance to use it. The only good way to spin this version of Arms is that it'll make me really eager to try out Gladiator Stance.

There are new models implemented for:

Female Humans
Both Dwarves
Both Gnomes
Female Night Elves
Both Draenei
Both Orcs
Neither Troll
Male Tauren
Male Undead
Neither Blood Elf

The models look great, though the main way you'll notice it is the movement of your characters (as you don't really spend much time looking back at your own face.) But in this regard, things are improved (I love the subtle changes to the Male Draenei run.) There are a few missing options, but I suspect these are just in the works (for example, my Undead Rogue has the wrong mouth.) The new models really are a pretty direct translation of the old ones, though I would warn people that sometime the low-res characters they created originally might have been shooting for something different than what you thought they were. I am eager and anxious to see what my human looks like when they get that model in.

To get to Draenor, there is a giant Khadgar standing in the middle of the Trade District (and I assume the Valley of Strength for Horde.) The Tanaan Jungle quest chain is pretty quick - doable in an hour, or probably a lot quicker after the initial rush of players subsides, and introduces you to a lot of the major characters of the expansion.

At the end, you head to Shadowmoon/Frostfire. The quest that takes you there, but the delightful solution is that there is a tiny Dark Portal in each of the Earthshrines that will port you there.

I have only done a little of Shadowmoon Valley because of the server instability (and just as a note: this is literally day two of the Beta, so I am not complaining at all.)

What little of Shadowmoon I have done gets you started very early on the Garrison. SPOILERS... kinda: You meet up with Velen when you arrive in Shadowmoon and he takes you to the spot where you'll build your garrison. The next few quests are about securing resources to build the place, and that's where I'm at.

I currently have my graphics turned all the way down, because I have an old computer (which will hopefully be replaced by the time the expansion comes out,) but the world looks very cool.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Beta! She's Coming, Captain!

Sorry - the title is due to the fact that I just got Assassin's Creed IV on the Wii U (yep, people do own those) and I've been in serious pirate mode. I'll have to write up an article about that soon, but given that this is like 95% a WoW blog, it seemed the more pertinent information was...

The Beta is starting on Friday... which is today, but it's only 1 in the morning, so it's really more Thursday night.

Anyway, this is a super-exciting development. Many of the revamped models have gone live on the Alpha, which is now over, but we can expect the Beta will most likely be an even newer build, and hopefully have more stuff in it.

As a reminder if you get emails about being in the Beta - to be safe, don't click anything in those emails and just go to your account page to find out if you got in. The real Blizzard emails will probably just link you there, so you might as well be cautious.

What does this mean for a release date? Well, we're nearly done with June, which means that in all likelihood we're probably still going to be seeing a mid-to-late fall release, unless the Beta goes super-quickly.

Things can change in the Beta, and we'll have to wait a while for things like raids to get tested, but the Beta is the last step before 6.0 shenanigans begin. It's not urgent  yet, but if you want to get things that will be unattainable post-6.0, best to start them now.

By my count, that's:

Challenge Mode Dungeon Sets

The Kor'kron War Wolf (for beating Garrosh on Normal or Heroic)

Garrosh Heirlooms (this one I'm less sure about)

The "Of the Black Harvest" title (which doesn't actually go live until 6.0, but you'll need to have already done the Green Fire chain.)

Probably some PvP thing.

So: to those who want them, may your Beta invites come soon! We should be getting a huge flood of information very soon.

EDIT: I got in. So that's pretty cool.

Guess I'll be able to bring you firsthand accounts.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Revamped Male Draenei and Undead Are Now Alpha-Live

After a nice little art craft post about the male human, it looks like we're getting more models revealed. To be fair, we had seen the male undead briefly during Blizzcon, but we now also have the male Draenei.

And as one big ol' caveat: these are still works in progress. While I imagine the Orcs, for example, are mostly done (given that they were one of the first revamps rolled out and that they're so central to Warlords,) this is just our first glimpse of the new models for some of these races.

Images are from MMO-Champion

The Draenei is one of those newer, BC models, and while that's still 8 years ago now, I've always felt that the BC races looked noticeably better than the Vanilla ones, even if they only post-date them by 2 years. I would guess it's because making two new races is easier than eight new ones. Anyway, not much to say here, except that it's looking fine. Not sure, but they might have beefed up the legs a bit, but still, it mostly looks like a polish.

Given that we're not getting a radical visual redesign, I think this is a very satisfying touch-up of the male undead (wow, in the last 24 hours they've hit the races of my two Alliance co-mains and my Horde main.)

The thing I'm most excited to see, however, is what these look like in motion. Granted, it's not often that we look directly at our characters' faces, so all the speaking animation is going to be special circumstances only (or cut-scenes/machinima, which is actually pretty exciting to look forward to,) but I'm also excited to see running and fighting animation, which is certainly something we see a lot of.

And because I didn't do it last time, let's look at the count:

Previewed/Spotted Somewhere:

Human 2/2
Night Elf 1/2 (female)
Dwarf 2/2
Gnome 2/2
Draenei 2/2

Orc 2/2
Troll 0/2
Tauren 1/2 (male)
Undead 2/2
Blood Elf 0/2

So it looks like we've gotten nearly all the Alliance races that are due for an update. The Horde's still lagging behind, though. We have yet to see any of the new Trolls or Blood Elf models, nor the female tauren.

Still, one of the glass-half-full sides to the long wait for Warlords of Draenor is that it looks like the art team has had a lot of time to work on these models and get them up and running. Previously they said they were unlikely to have them all live by the time 6.0 came out, but it's looking more and more like they'll be able to do that.

They had even mentioned taking a second crack at Worgen and Goblins. Obviously, the Cata races are still looking pretty good - indeed, they were part of what inspired the revamp of the Vanilla/BC ones. But I would love to see the new facial rigging system they have used for the Cata guys. (Also, can you give Worgen more 2-handed strike animations? Too many silly flips - doesn't seem very wolflike, you know?)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Male Human Revealed!

Well, this is probably the revamp I've most been looking forward to. My main for many years (though he shares that honor now with my DK as co-mains) is a Human Paladin. The human male is most likely the first vanilla model that they ever built (that's speculation, but reasonable, I think.) It has some issues. For instance, the forearms are enormous (larger than the upper arms, actually) and there's no wrist. The face is commonly considered horrible (though with the other vanilla models, I don't really see a huge difference.) Anyway, what have they come up with?

So I think we're looking pretty good. Obviously, humans have an extra difficulty, in that, unlike the other races, we go around seeing humans pretty much every day. So naturally, we're going to be a little skeptical.

I could be wrong, but I don't think the hair is quite finished, though the update to the barbarian/hippie braids is certainly updated.

But really, for all this nitpicking, I'm so excited to see this model live and in movement. Seeing this dude strap on a pair of steampunk goggles, pick up a hammer and a shield and consecrate the Fel out of a bunch of demons will be pretty awesome.

As a side note, it's interesting to me how as our models are getting updated, it's actually making the older gear really show its age. That's fine - indeed, that's intentional. But it does mean that as much as I really want to put together a full tier 8 25-man set for my Paladin for transmog (shoulders are the only thing left!,) it's increasingly looking like it'll come off as, ironically, a little drab.

I actually hope that Blizzard designs more open-face helmets now that we're all going to be looking a lot better.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Green Fire Part Three!

Yes, I realize that the second part of this series was written way back in April of 2013. I've worked on and off on Kanrethad Ebonlocke (cursed be his name) for over a year now, but I finally, finally (finally) managed to beat him. (Ok, I actually died right when Jubeka showed up, but it was good enough.)

The final part of the Green Fire scenario is by far the hardest. This is essentially a one-man raid boss with many mechanics to keep in mind and a lot of things to juggle.

The good news is that once you've reached Kanrethad, you'll be transported to the top of the Black Temple every time you start the scenario, and thus you can skip the rest of the stuff  you had been through.

So, if you're still working on this guy, or perhaps you just started the chain, or you've been remotivated to try again given that there's a Feat of Strength that will give a title coming in Warlords (and one that you won't be able to get post-6.0,) how do you beat this evil dude?

First, let's talk about your build:

Destruction works great for this (as it has for the entire scenario - and given that Destruction is the most changed by green fire, it makes sense.) First off, you'll want to go with Grimoire of Sacrifice. There are two reasons for this: one is that you'll have to enslave the first demon Kanrethad summons - a Pit Lord - in order to really succeed in the encounter. The other is that sacrificing the Imp allows you to purge magic effects, which is something you'll want to do practically on cool down.

The rest are mostly optional, but I recommend Soul Leech for sustained damage mitigation, Shadowfury for a specific part that I'll get to, Sacrificial Pact as an emergency button, Unbound Will just because, and Kil'jaeden's Cunning because movement is nice.

Having great gear is certainly not a bad thing, as higher damage means that adds will not last as long, and the fight itself will go quicker, meaning fewer chances to screw up. Still, this is a fight that's all about execution and situational awareness. You cannot grow complacent, or he will kill you in an instant.

Pre-Fight Preparation:

There are three pillars at the back of the Temple Summit. Kanrethad's portal will spawn in front of the middle one. Set up your Demonic Teleport location behind one of the side pillars, and if you want, throw a Demonic Gateway from there to the circular ridge in the middle of the summit.

I recommend setting up raid marks to let you know the operating range of your teleport spell, because you'll need to hit that with only a few seconds' notice.

Sacrifice your Imp and make sure you're buffed up.

The target here is Kanrethad Ebonlocke, so let's start with his abilities:

Curse of Impending Doom: This is just a 7-minute hard enrage timer. I think you can actually cleanse this if you have a purification potion, which lets you nearly double the time you have, but overall it's just background information.

Seed of Corruption: This is a DOT that can explode when it goes off and potentially (not sure if it's always) leave a little dark vortex that will draw you in and do big damage. Always try to cleanse this with Singe Magic or the Pit Lord's Fire Breath.

Agony: A powerful DOT that you should also try to dispel.

Rain of Fire: The damage from this isn't huge, but if you can stand move for a bit, get out of it.

Soul Fire: Kanrethad's standard attack. It's not too horrible, but it's a constant source of damage.

CHAOS BOLT: This one's the biggest thing to avoid. The key to avoiding this is to line-of-sight it. Whenever Kanrethad begins to cast Chaos Bolt, teleport behind the pillar and wait for the cast to fail. Then get out of there and resume the fight. Chaos Bolt does about a million damage, so you might be able to survive one of them if you hit Sacrificial Pact at full health, but it's much easier to just avoid it.

CATACLYSM: This is another fight-ending ability. You have to interrupt this, but thankfully the Pit Lord has a charge/stun that will interrupt the cast of the spell. To get a little extra damage in, start casting Chaos Bolt before you hit charge, as he'll take extra damage while stunned.

Annoying Imp: I believe this only happens if you have too many DOTs on you, but occasionally an annoying imp will jump on your back and occasionally stun you at inopportune times while saying silly things. I don't know if you can dispel him, but it's a good reminder to keep getting rid of debuffs.

Summon Various Demons: The fight would be pretty simple if it weren't for all the demons Kanrethad was summoning. He will summon a Pit Lord first, and then after that there will be a group of 60 Imps, followed by 3 Fel Hunters, and then 1 Doomguard, and then repeating Imps, Fel Hunters, Doomguard, etc.

Pit Lord:

The Pit Lord is your buddy for this fight. As soon as he shows up, use Enslave Demon. Depending on how long the fight lasts, you might have to dismiss him at some point and re-enslave him, but for most of the fight he's going to be on your side. The Pit Lord has four abilities:

Cleave: This is on auto. The Pit Lord will do melee attacks that cleave. Basically just a nice source of damage.

Fel Breath: Fel Breath is fantastic. It does AoE damage in a large cone, and it will clear you of a DOT if you're standing in the cone. Use this whenever you can, but especially when the Imps come out.

Charge: The Pit Lord charges and stuns the target, causing it to take increased damage, and also interrupts spells. USE THIS ONLY ON CATACLYSM. It has a long enough cool down that it's better to play it safe.

Health Siphon: The Pit Lord has tons of health, and chances are that you're going to be the one with threat, so if you ever need a big boost to your health, hit that button. Obviously if the Pit Lord is low on health, you might want to hold off, but I never ran into that as a problem.


The Imps are pretty basic. There are just a lot of them. The good news is that casting Rain of Fire on them will fill you with tons of Burning Embers. Just blanket them in Rain of Fire and use the Pit Lord's Fel Breath on them. Use Ember Tap to heal up if you're getting bombarded by them.

Fel Hunters:

When Kanrethad starts summoning the Fel Hunters, use your "Move To" command on the Pit Lord to send him to the other side of the portal than where you are, and lay down Rain of Fire to draw the Fel Hunters to you. The reason these guys are so dangerous - possibly the most dangerous things he summons - is that they can dispel your Enslave Demon from the Pit Lord. This is also a great time to hit Shadowfury, which should give you a little more time both to attack and also to keep them off your Pit Lord.

The three pop out one at a time. When the first comes out, hit it with Havoc. Then target the second, pop Dark Soul, and hit it with a Chaos Bolt. This should kill the first two. The third you'll just have to kill the old fashioned way. Just be sure none of them go after the Pit Lord, or you'll be in a world of trouble. Even with 5.4 gear, my Chaos Bolts were not enough to take the Fel Hunters down in one shot, but with Dark Soul active, it was enough, so I recommend making sure you've got Dark Soul off cool down and that you use it here.


The doomguard is actually simple. Just CC him. He'll cast Doom Bolts at you that hurt, so just CC him with Banish. If the fight lasts long enough for a second Doomguard to appear, you'll want to use Fear to keep the other under control. Keep that CC up.

When Kanrethad reaches 1% or so, Jubeka will show up and banish the weakened Kanrethad. Once you have credit for the quest, you're safe (I died at this point.) If you click on Kanrethad once he's banished, you'll leap into the air and gain the passive "The Codex of Xerranth," causing all your fire abilities to become green.

Literally everything fire-related. The icons on your action bars, the Burning Ember meter, any proc buffs or even power auras like the one for Molten Core. Even your Warlock mounts, the Felsteed and Dreadsteed are given a make-over to fit with the green-fire theme.

If you don't want that look, you can talk to Jubeka to remove it. You can come back again to the Black Temple if you're interested in doing the fight again, and the scenario will, I believe, send you directly to Ebonlocke.

Once completed, Jubeka Shadowbreaker can be found at the Altar of Damnation in Shadowmoon Valley, just a few feet north of the various benches and Gul'dan's spirit-echo-thing. She will be standing there keeping Kanrethad permanently banished. You can speak to her there to have the green fire removed, which will cost 500 gold. Then, if you want to re-acquire the look after having it purged, you can simply click on Kanrethad again and have that cool jumping/spinning animation (you can actually see this animation again even if you never got rid of the green fire.)

Come 6.0, if you've managed to complete this, you'll have the title "of the Black Harvest" on any 90+ warlock on your account. This is a Feat of Strength, though. Future Warlocks will still be able to acquire the Codex of Xerranth, but the title appears to be for those who completed it during Mists only.

And that's how you turn your fire green. Give us a deep maniacal laugh, buddy, you've earned it.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Titans on Draenor

First off, a lot of this is seriously speculative, and based on screenshots from the Warlords Alpha. What that means is that it's subject to change and subject to renaming and reconceptualizing.

The Titans are possibly the most powerful entities in the Warcraft universe. Both the Old Gods and the Burning Legion have it out for them and their creations. Five of the thirteen playable races can trace their lineage directly to Titan creations, and there are plenty of hints that some of the other races were either created or altered into their current form by the Titans or their creations.

We also know that the Titans are not from Azeroth, and that Azeroth is one of many planets that they have put to order. Azeroth appears to be a special case, and is important for reasons that we have not yet learned, but the Titans have traveled throughout the universe.

Draenor is the second-most important planet in the Warcraft setting. The Orcs and Ogres are from there originally, and the Draenei lived there for several centuries. Without the Orcs and the Horde that they formed, Azeroth would look very different. So what is the history of Draenor?

We know a lot about the history of Azeroth. Either the Titans showed up an usurped it from the Old Gods, or (if you ask me, more likely) the Old Gods came and infected the world after the Titans originally set up shop there. But even beyond that radically distant history, there are tens of thousands of years of history, and many beings, such as the Dragon Aspects, the Loa, the Ancients, or Titan Guardians, who actually remember some of those early days.

In Draenor, we just don't know much about the world. The only version of Draenor we've been able to really explore in-game in WoW is Outland - a shattered wreck of a planet that is floating through the Twisting Nether. Shockingly, it is still habitable, but most of the planet has been destroyed, and that which remains has been ravaged by demons and Fel-tainted Orcs, or just the chaos of the Twisting Nether.

We will be traveling to a nearly-pristine Draenor, though. Apart from the industrial pollution of the Iron Horde, this Draenor will be essentially intact.

So, now into the spoiler/subject to change stuff:

There are screenshots of Gorgrond that show a Dark Iron Dwarf stronghold built into the earth that is being assaulted by creatures called "reclaimers." Now, it's certainly possible that the reclaimers are reacting to this newly-built stronghold of the Dark Iron Dwarves (which are now part of the Alliance) and trying to restore it to nature. On the other hand, there are also some examples of creatures in that area of the zone called "Titanic Megabeasts." Certainly, "titanic" just means large, but it makes you wonder: was Draenor also touched by the Titans?

Take the Ogres as an example:

The Ogres have gone through something that resembles the Curse of Flesh. Their distant ancestors include the Gronn. We now see in some of the Draenor screenshots and content that there appears to be some middle-step called Ogron. Initially rocky, near-elemental-like giants, the Ogres are now your standard soft and fleshy humanoids.

It's also suggested that the Arrakoa might worship something akin to the Old Gods. In BC's Shadowmoon Valley (as cool as it is to see an alternate version of the zone, it might have made it easier to distinguish if it was given a different name, like Tanaan Jungle/Hellfire Penninsula or Talador/Terrokar Forest) we see the Arrakoa summoning in something that looks a lot like C'thun.

But where there are Old Gods, there could very well be Titans.

Indeed, while they used a modified Draenei model, the Mogu felt very similar in culture to the Orcs, and in fact, the whole Mogu history seemed like a cautionary tale for Garrosh (that he ignored, and reaped the same reward.)

What would it mean for the Orcs to be a Titanic race? In a sense, it would make it less weird for them to be a major population on Azeroth. Another interesting thing to note is that the Alliance is comprised mostly of Titanic races (Human, Gnome, Dwarf, Worgen - which are human - and Night Elves were created because of the Titanic Well of Eternity) whereas the Horde has only a couple of races with clear ties to the Titans (Undead - which are human - and Blood Elves, who are descendants of the Night Elves and thus related via the Well of Eternity.) The Old Gods and Burning Legion are clearly evil, but the Horde has not had a huge impetus to side with the Titans.

As of yet, we haven't seen anything of the Titans on Draenor. The most impressive structures have tended to either be only a few hundred years old Draenei architecture or the far-more-recent Tempest Keep and Mana Forge facilities built by the Naaru.

But Outland is a wreck of a world, and no one has really done a whole lot of archaeology there. But if we go to Draenor B, we're presented with new possibilities that could really shake the sense of who the Orcs are in relation to Azeroth and the cosmos.

Update on Dungeon List

Fairly recently, I wrote an article speculating on the upcoming 5-man dungeons that will be releasing with Warlords of Draenor. As it turns out, it looks like some of their names have changed, and might actually have a very different feel to them.

Grimrail Depot is the new name for Blackrock Depot. This one actually has a loading screen, which depicts a speeding train. Might we be attacking a train in a kind of western train-heist? Given that Gorgrond looks a lot like the American Southwest, it would be pretty awesome to have a kind of western-themed dungeon.

Shadowmoon Burial Grounds looks largely the same. Indeed, this was one of the early confirmed dungeons, and has us taking down Ner'zhul.

Upper Blackrock Spire is getting a Feat of Strength - or possibly a different category of achievement that will be strictly for deprecated achievements - for killing Drakkisath. So who is going to be the final boss there? Warlord Zaela. Yes, Zaela survived our fight against Galakras and is firmly on the side of the Iron Horde, but given that she's an Azerothian Orc (I assume she was born on Azeroth) she's going to be taking up residence in UBRS. Pretty sad, as I liked her, but then, she was always raving about purity of blood (admittedly when talking about fel-taint) so screw her. Actually, come to think of it, the Dragonmaw and Blackrock Orcs seem to naturally have grey skin. Can the Draenor-B orcs tell that she has the same fel-taint as our Horde's orcs?

Bloodmaul Slagmines, like Shadowmoon Burial Grounds, probably doesn't need any more of an explanation, and has not received any obvious changes.

Iron Docks has no equivalent that I can think of. In fact, it appears that there is actually one more dungeon than we previously thought existed. I suspect this will be in Gorgrond, as there is a large harbor there. Alternatively, it could be in Nagrand, as there seem to be some docks to the south there.

Overgrown Outpost is another dungeon that I had not heard of previously. The name "Overgrown" suggests that it could be in Tanaan Jungle, especially given that I don't think any of the other dungeons are obvious for Tanaan.

Auchindoun will obviously be exactly where you expect it to be (though no Bone Wastes surrounding it.) The interesting tidbit here is that not only will there be a definite demonic, Burning Legion presence, but the final boss is Teron'gor, who I highly suspect is the Orc Warlock who in our timeline became Teron Gorefiend, the first of the Horde's Death Knights. (I considered it a bit of a pilgrimage to kill him in Black Temple on my Death Knight. Scourge... ahem, Alliance rules! Old Horde drools!)

Skyreach is the newest name for the Arrakoan Spires/Spires of Arrak dungeon (the latter name being the name of the zone, which would have just been confusing.) I expect we'll be fighting through tree-tops, or at least some kind of tall buildings and dealing with sun-powered arrakoa. Supposedly there's a golem-like construct too, which is always fun (now that I've said that watch that turn out to be a real pain in the ass boss...)

The "Iron Barracks" is nowhere to be seen, though for all I know they might have redesigned it to become the Iron Docks or perhaps totally scrapped it in favor of the Overgrown Outpost.

Anyway, it's good to see that it looks like there will be eight launch dungeons instead of seven, though this will still be the smallest number of 5-man dungeons an expansion has ever launched with. I hold out some hope that with patches, we'll get at least a Cataclysm number of dungeons (there were only 9 at launch, but they added 5 in patches.) Still, I miss the days when expansions would launch with dungeons in the teens and then continue to add more.

I look forward to finding out more details about these places and how they tie into the leveling process and the story.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

How Many Abilities Should We Be Using?

World of Warcraft is coming up on its tenth anniversary. Every two years, the game has had an expansion. While some expansions have brought new classes, the existing ones have also gone through many big changes. Hunters use an entirely different resource system than they originally did. Paladins have a secondary resource that is absolutely key to their gameplay that wasn't there originally. Warlocks now have three unique secondary resources, one for each spec.

While not all classes have gotten this kind of revamp or redesign, one of the exciting prospects of each expansion is the addition of new abilities - through talents to baseline. Iconic abilities like Bladestorm, or Feral Spirit, or Mind Sear, were all later additions to the game.

It's always exciting to get new toys. The problem is that after five of these two-year game cycles, our spell books are crowded. Sometimes, Blizzard has been forced to give us weird, niche abilities, like Dark Simulacrum, or they've had to throw us another cool down to stack up, like Shadow Blades.

And for anyone who has played a Hunter during Mists, it's pretty clear that we have a bit of a button bloat issue. No, it's not only Hunter, but I think of theirs being the most extreme case.

The thing is: how many abilities should we be using?

In the default Blizzard UI, you can create several action bars. Your default bar has space for twelve abilities, and you can put an equally large bar above that, along with another twelve spaces to its right, and then two long columns on the right side of your screen. Because I'm very fussy, but hate having to program add ons (with the exception of Power Auras/Weak Auras, because they are so damn useful,) I go with the default UI. It's relatively easy to key bind these various bars. I have my main bar simply use the numbers as well as "-" and "=," which is the default, and then the spaces above it are simply the same numbers, but modified by Shift.

Twenty four buttons is a pretty decent array of abilities, I think, and for the most part that covers the key binds that I need to play a class reasonably well.

Now, it's certainly a matter of opinion, and this isn't a "right" answer, but I think 24 is a pretty good cap on what people should be expected to keep hot keyed. If you are using more than that in typical situations, there's probably a bloat problem.

Right now, we're witnessing a big ability pruning going on in the Warlords of Draenor Alpha. For the most part, I'm happy with the choices they've been making, but at the same time, I wonder if they're going a bit overboard.

For example: Blood Death Knights. First off, for all DKs, Blood Boil and Pestilence are being merged into one ability. That's fine, actually, given that Roiling Blood is such an attractive Talent (though not for Frost.) Rune Strike is going away, with Blood just using Death Coil like the old Blood DPS used to. Given that we don't get Expertise or Hit and a tank spec is going to effectively be able to hit anything all the time, the major appeal of Rune Strike is largely gone, so really this is a buff. But then Heart Strike is going away.

Now admittedly, Heart Strike is hardly the most cherished Blood DK ability. It's pretty much a relic from the days of Blood DPS, when we would use Death Strike or Obliterate (which used to consume diseases if you didn't pick up a talent... it was complicated) to generate Death Runes and then spend those on lots and lots of Heart Strikes (Blood DPS played a bit like Unholy does now - of course, back then, Scourge Strike was a two-rune attack, so Unholy used to play more like 2H Frost.) Heart Strike has a bit of a cleave effect, but given that Blood Boil refreshes diseases and does pretty good damage (and it's Shadow, so it bypasses armor,) in a lot of cases Heart Strike would just be passed by in favor of guaranteed full AoE and disease-proliferation.

But it does raise an interesting question: with this change, Blood will essentially have the same rotation for AoE as it does for single targets. This was the case with Retribution and Protection Paladins during Wrath, and Blizzard came down pretty hard on that. Admittedly, it's less of an issue for a tank, because tanks need to generate AoE threat in pretty much every scenario except when there's literally a single enemy.

Beyond that, however, I think the big cause for uproar is the removal of Weapon Imbues for Shaman. One of the iconic things about a Shaman is that they have swirly things on their weapons even when they're low level and wouldn't bother getting true weapon enchantments. Now, Enhancement will retain the Imbues' effects, but one wonders if they'll keep the weapon swirl. Meanwhile, Elemental and Restoration are just getting the bonuses for those buffs rolled in to their abilities. But Shamans have swirly weapon things! My hope is that there will at least be a minor glyph that allows you to keep those effects. Likewise, while Elemental and Enhancement keep their Lightning Shields (for now,) Resto is losing Water Shield. Again, I hope there's some glyph or something that retains this visual. It's bad enough that we don't get our little forest of totems anymore (yes, I know there's a glyph for that,) but this seems unduly harsh.

The other reason why I cry foul on these changes (even if I do kind of hate having to remind myself to imbue my weapons on my Shaman, and make sure the right one is on the right weapon) is that the point of the ability pruning is to take abilities off the action bars. I'm all for getting rid of annoying and superfluous abilities that clog up that 24-button space, but some of the things they are getting rid of are on the other, unbound bars, or just left in the spell book. These are the kind of abilities I'm fine having tons of. Indeed, I think it can add a lot of flavor to the class when you get these abilities that don't do much in combat, but reinforce that you have certain powers. Yes, Sentry Totem was pretty silly, and almost redundant with Far Sight, but if we're not going to key-bind it, why worry about throwing it in the spell book?

Likewise, I'm noticing that a lot of passive abilities are getting merged into the spells they affect. For example, the Art of War causes a Ret Paladin's melee swings to sometimes reset the cool down on Exorcism. Yet they're getting rid of that and just merging it into the spell. I actually think this is harmful, as it's far easier for me to look at a spec that I don't know and look through the passives to figure out key mechanical things like procs. I might have a hard time figuring out when exactly I should use Soul Fire as a Demo Lock unless I could see Molten Core.

Just shortening the spell book for the sake of shortening it is not something that I would advocate. The key here is core rotational abilities. I'd love for them to, say, get rid of the Glaive Toss tier for Hunters (does anyone take the other abilities?) so that I can focus on my core abilities. But I don't think you needed to get rid of Eyes of the Beast (can't remember when that happened,) since, worst case scenario, that ability is just going to sit in my spell book until I remember that I can play around with it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

That Which Has Been Found Again!

Good news for anyone who came *this close* to getting your LFR tier set that is awesome for transmog, or who is wondering whether scenarios like Battle on the High Seas or The Secret of Ragefire are going to go away in a puff of smoke come level 91:

New NPCs are popping up on the Alpha that will allow you to get into these instances. While LFR has allowed the average player to become a raider (though they require an above-average amount of patience,) and scenarios have allowed Blizzard to create quick and dirty controlled environments for unstructured group play, there has been a glaring problem, which is that these are things that require the Group Finder to use, and thus as soon as you out level them, the Group Finder no longer allows you take part.

While theoretically there could be a group of people who are level 85 who can run LFR Dragon Soul today, the vast majority of players are now incapable of going back in there and getting, for example, a Blue Gurthalak. And while personally I've been a bit underwhelmed by most scenarios (though that has more to do with their rewards than the scenarios themselves,) it'd be nice to be able to back and, say, run A Little Patience again at some point.

There will be three NPCs in the Seat of Knowledge in Pandaria who will allow you to access level 90 scenarios, heroic scenarios, and LFR raids, and there will be a Wyrmrest representative standing outside the Dragon Soul instance portal in the Caverns of Time who will allow you to take on an easier version of Deathwing with blue-colored weapons.

It's a reasonably elegant solution, and a nice acknowledgement of the desire to run old stuff for nostalgia.

Now, if you ask me, this sets a fantastic precedent for keeping old content around, and I would ask Blizzard to, when they have spare time on their hands (and that's a thing that DOES HAPPEN, because they said that was why BFD, RFK and RFD are getting revamped,) that they put similar NPCs next to any dungeon or raid that has been revamped, so that you can go back and run the original version.

I have to imagine that Blizzard hasn't just deleted the files on those old instances. The only major downside to a revamp of an old, beloved dungeon is that you lose that old, beloved dungeon. Sometimes it works out all right, like with the Scarlet Monastery, but sometimes the dungeon becomes something entirely off-theme, like Shadowfang Keep (which was the Worgen dungeon originally.)

I would love to see an Argent Dawn NPC in Plaguelands who lets you run Naxxramas-40, an arrogant Amani Troll who lets you go into Zul'Aman-10, and other such NPCs that allow you to run the old content (complete with old gear for transmog, which is a big part of the motivation for this in the first place.) Yes, the new Scholomance makes far more sense as a modern dungeon design, but sometimes I miss hanging a left and going into that crazy alchemy lab with Ras Frostwhisper, or fighting that Gargoyle demon on that ledge whose name I can't remember.

I'm not designer/developer, and I don't know if there would be complications in implementing this, but the big selling point is that these old instances would be untouched, and that the revamps would remain in place. In fact, with NPCs like this, I would be far happier to welcome major revamps like the ones we saw in Mists, because it would be purely additive to the game. It would mean that I could fight both VanCleefs!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Attunements - No, not the Raiding Kind

Apparently there's a new feature in the latest Alpha build. Every class specialization now has an "attunement," which increases the amount of a given secondary stat gained from any sources by a certain percent. For example, Assassination will have a Mastery attunement while Combat will, I believe, have a Haste one.

It's not clear whether attunement will be another stat, or if it is simply a passive that comes with the spec.

Either scenario is odd.

If it's a passive, then attunements will, by their nature, skew the value of certain secondary stats. And given which stat is chosen for each spec, it looks like they're mostly going with whatever has generally been considered the best stat for that spec, like in the examples for Rogues above. Yet given that we won't have reforging and gem sockets are becoming rarer, it seems like we should want to de-emphasize that "one stat to rule them all" design. I can squeeze a crapton of haste out of my Prot Paladin's gear these days, but with the upcoming gear changes, I'm going to want to see Mastery and the other stats propped up a little more so that I can live with haste-less gear. If this new attunement is passive, it would seem ill-advised to take a single piece of non-haste gear.

If it's a new stat, sort of replacing Amplify, I can actually see how it would be helpful. Naturally, every spec is going to gravitate toward certain stats (even if I still don't get why crit is so good for Frost DKs.) As well as they are designed, creating a mathematical system where every stat is equally good and scales up at the same rate is... complicated to say the rest. And given that reality, and the greater difficulty in tuning your gear toward that favored stat, Blizzard is going to have their work cut out for them to make gear upgrades attractive (you don't want the old Warrior saying "well, it's 24 iLevels up, but there's no crit, so pass.") In this case, Attunmenet the stat would work by spreading that favorable stat around. You'd be twice as likely to effectively find your best stat on gear.

But two big problems present themselves even with this better scenario:

One is that Blizzard might get it wrong. Sure, Blizzard knows their game, but look at Destruction, for example. Theoretically, Destro ought to be the crittyiest critter among the Warlocks, but currently they appear to prefer Mastery and Haste (which is nice, because my Demo lock's gear is tuned perfectly for his Destro off-set.) It'd be annoying if your coveted stat is now effectively rarer because Blizzard hasn't updated to all the new theory crafting.

The other problem is that this would make Attunement everyone's best stat. Or, if it's under tuned, it's a worthless stat.

As an alternative, it might be interesting to try a stat that keeps the same idea, but works slightly differently. This alternate Attunement would work like a more narrow Amplify, buffing only whichever secondary stat you have the most of.

This would make things a bit more interesting. A class or spec that likes to focus everything into one very powerful stat would find it attractive, but a spec like Beast Mastery, that likes a little bit of everything, would rather spread the love.

Anyway, for all we know this is just a band-aid fix for some tuning they're working on. So all this might be for nothing.

The Fiery Throne - the Scourge, Four Years Later

Right now, most of our lore speculation is focused on Draenor and the upcoming expansion. It's an exciting time to tease out tidbits, discovering what might be happening in this alternate Draenor. After all, with an alternate timeline, no one is safe, and of course, the people who come with us to this alternate universe are not immune to the axes of the Iron Horde, the fists of the Ogre Empire, or the concentrated sunlight of the Arrakoa. (Also, it looks like there are some awesome tree-folk who might be a thing, but that's just from a model I saw on WoWHead.)

But Blizzard has stated time and again that they plan a few expansions ahead. Warlords was always going to follow Mists of Pandaria, given how Garrosh has been the through line. They set up the Twilight Dragonflight as early as Burning Crusade (or at least Sinestra's initial interest in the Netherwing) and in retrospect, the Obsidian Sanctum was a huge hint that we were going to be dealing with the big daddy of the Black Dragons.

I loved Wrath of the Lich King. While I try not to look too much through rose-tinted glasses (the Prot Paladin rotation was stiff and unchanging, and there were still many specs that were just not viable options,) my overall impression of Wrath was that it was the best expansion. Surely, there have been new features and rethinks that have come since then that have made the game better (the Mists talent overhaul has, I think, proven very successful, for example,) but I loved fighting the Scourge. Neither subsequent expansion has had the same climactic build-up that we got with Wrath. We were able to begin assaulting Icecrown from the get-go, but even after completing all the quests in the zone, it still felt like the war against the Lich King was going to be a long and difficult struggle.

Finally, about a year after we first got to Northrend, we broke down the gates to Icecrown Citadel and were able to make our final assault. We went into the Frozen Halls effectively as an intelligence-gathering mission, seeking some weakness we might use against the Lich King, only to discover that in some way, Arthas was holding the Scourge back, and that in his absence, it would become even more dangerous, perhaps even unstoppable. Why was he holding them back?

After learning this rather disappointing bit of news, we began the assault proper, fighting our way up the spire of Icecrown Citadel and eventually reaching the Frozen Throne, where we were able to do battle with the Lich King.

And then he killed us.

Yes, Arthas had effectively been testing his newest subjects throughout our entire war, and filtering out the weak so that only the strongest could get to him, all so he could make sure he had Azeroth's greatest fighters to then turn on the living. Thankfully, he had underestimated Tirion Fordring, or rather, the will of the Light, which allowed Tirion to escape his icy prison and destroy Frostmourne, freeing not only the souls of all the people Arthas had killed with it, but also Arthas' own soul. And in that moment of rushing terror, and possibly guilt, we were able to kill the Lich King.

Only to install the next one. Bolvar Fordragon, long thought dead after the Wrathgate Incident, had actually spent the year being tortured personally by Arthas, but, stone cold badass that he was, he never broke. Having proved himself to have basically the most willpower of any person who ever lived, Bolvar was the ideal candidate to take on the responsibility of commanding the Scourge.

Taking on the Helm of Domination, which held within it the impersonal, disembodied essence of the Lich King, Bolvar became what he termed the "Jailor of the Damned." And we left him there.

And we haven't heard anything since. Sylvanas got a look at him and killed herself (though she was brought back to life by the Val'kyr.)

The big question that this raises is:

What is going on with Bolvar and the Scourge?

We know the Scourge isn't gone completely. Even after the Cataclysm, we saw that the Cult of the Damned still has a presence in the Plaguelands. While I think we can probably squish together the revamps of Scarlet Monastery and Scholomance into the Cataclysm time-frame (though there is a Scarlet Monk who learned from Pandaren masters, so maybe not,) it's clear that the Scourge is bowed, but unbroken.

There are Cult of the Damned and Scourge Proper forces in northern Lordaeron who remain a threat, and indeed, it looks like we're seeing some continuing activities with them in the Razorfen. They certainly don't seem like the threat they were under Arthas, but the Scourge is at its most dangerous when people don't suspect it. They were able to sweep across Lordaeron the first time because no one knew what was happening until half the country was infected.

In all of this, how is Bolvar doing? It's possible that we're not hearing much about the Scourge because Bolvar's doing his job. Sure, a few cultists and banshees slip through, but no news could be good news. Alternatively, he might be slipping. Bolvar has an iron will, which is great, but that might mean that he cannot settle in to command the Scourge as well as an other might. Essentially, Bolvar has to be the responsible parent who doesn't let the kids eat ice cream for dinner, but in this case, the kids are zombies and the ice cream is brains. Bolvar's a good guy, and thus might not be accustomed to exerting total control over others, robbing them of their will. But when the "best case" of someone having broken away from the Scourge is Sylvanas, it doesn't really suggest that Bolvar can just let his people go off and do what they want.

And then there's the far more worrying scenario. Bolvar survived a year's worth of torture, which is impressive, and he volunteered to take the crown. But surviving a year does not necessarily mean you'll be uncorrupted forever. And he's not getting tortured now - he's the freaking Lich King! Power can go to peoples' heads, even idealistic and good people. And the Lich King is one of the most powerful entities ever to set foot on Azeroth.

Clearly, we can't just go to Northrend again and fight the Scourge again. But that doesn't mean that the Scourge is a total non-issue now. Depending on what has been going on in Northrend since Arthas' fall (other than the Siege of Wyrmrest Temple and the Purge of Dalaran, which are both pretty significant events, though neither really directly relates to the Scourge,) there could be a secret war machine getting built up again, or perhaps the Scourge is moving away from Northrend, moving away from a Lich King who will not let them act as they wish to.

Do I think we're due for another Scourge expansion? Not yet, probably, and it's possible that we'll never really see one like Wrath again. But I am somewhat curious to know whether the Scourge was kept around simply as a potential story hook they could one day pick up again, or if Blizzard is planning to bring back that massive army of the dead to threaten us once more.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Question of Draenic Isolation

For the lore-invested, Warlords of Draenor has one deep, central question: What hath Garrosh and Kairoz wrought?

The Simple Answer:

The motivation for this expansion was always to bring back the big names of the Old Horde. Garrosh was always meant to have ascended to Warchief, proven to be a disastrous leader (for all his success in expanding Horde territory, he turned it into a totalitarian police state,) and taken down by the heroes of Azeroth. Garrosh would then create a kind of rival Horde. For a time, they actually considered having him rally the common Azerothian humanoid species not already involved in one faction or the other. Then Blizzard decided that didn't really jive with Garrosh's Orc-supremacist ideology, and they considered having him raise the Warlords of the Old Horde from the dead, but given that this seemed a little necromancy-ish, and thus seemed like it would make this into a Wrath 2.0 kind of expansion instead of a "rawr, Orcs" expansion, they decided that they wanted to avoid necromancy. Certainly, Garrosh is unafraid to use forbidden magic, but necromancy cuts a little close to demonic magic, which is the one place he really draws the line.

So the whole time-travel narrative of Warlords of Draenor was really meant to serve the purpose of an Old Horde expansion, with a few fun benefits along the way, like seeing a radically different version of Outland (but not replacing the Old, Cataclysm style) and, to the great joy of many on team blue, a chance to finally put the bluest of the Alliance races center-stage and flesh out Draenei history.

So the simple answer basically accepts that the time-travel plot is just a means to an end. We're not getting into science fiction territory here. Instead we're just seeing a kind of flashback (admittedly, with a Sci-Fi-style alternate universe.)

And rather than having us make contact with a world where Garrosh is an old man and the Iron Horde has took over Draenor 30-40 years ago, we're finding a universe that is out of synch with our own, because those famous Orcs were the whole reason for the expansion.

If the simple answer is what we're getting, then it suggests that whether or not there is anything to this alternate universe outside of Draenor is pretty irrelevant, because we're just going to focus on Draenor itself. It suggests a straightforward expansion where we pretty much just fight the Iron Horde and perhaps some of the other inhabitants of Draenor, and the expansion ends with us taking down their Warchief (Grommash Hellscream, most likely.)

The Complex Answer:

I know there are some who are looking for a simple and straightforward story, but I for one would be disappointed if this is entirely where things were left off. For one, it suggests more of the same, given that 5.1, 5.3, and 5.4 were all fairly focused on the Horde (ok, 5.1 did give the Alliance some interesting, somewhat pro-active stuff, like the Purge of Dalaran.) But even beyond that, I'm someone who has always been fascinated with time travel and the consequences that can be born from it.

Certainly, it's something you want to tread lightly in. And no matter what kind of time travel rules you choose, someone will object (Back to the Future rules seem arbitrary when you look too closely at them while Twelve Monkeys rules rigidly invalidate free will.) Blizzard has a great sense of tone and a wonderful imagination for world, but when it comes to these complex speculative fiction ideas, they sometimes fall a little flat (much as I love the Scourge as enemies, I'm not sure in what way Arthas was "holding them back" enough to necessitate a successor Lich King, and don't get me started on how the Aspects were created to stop an Aspect that would crazy and tried to destroy the world.)

But the existence of an alternate universe Draenor really fires up the imagination. Ought there not to be an alternate Azeroth, then? Or an alternate Burning Legion? We know that Garrosh arrives just in time to stop his father from drinking the Blood of Mannoroth, which means that Kil'jaeden already contacted Ner'zhul and Gul'dan, and obviously Gul'dan already made his deal to get Mannoroth's blood.

The Burning Legion, admittedly, I could imagine being somehow outside these alternate timelines, as they are demons, and the Twisting Nether, as a magical and chaotic realm might be outside the normal flow of time. But if we are to understand that Draenor really is another planet in the same universe as Azeroth (and that's not a guarantee, as Blizzard has said time and again that the Dark Portal is a dimensional one, and that Tempest Keep is a dimensional ship,) then an alternate Draenor seems to require that there be an alternate Azeroth.

And alternate Azeroth would have a still-Sargeras-possessed Medivh.

Or, potentially, this Draenor isn't really real in the sense that our familiar Azeroth and Outland are. While it looks like it's your standard science fiction "time travel creating alternate universes/timelines," perhaps instead it's a kind of time-echo, created by Kairoz' unleashed powers. Indeed, that would seem to vindicate Nozdormu and Aman'thul, as the latter had instructed the former that there was only one true timeline that had to be protected, and that these alternate versions were truly malicious imposter universes, and not living, vibrant universes in their own right.

Which Answer Do You Choose?

The Simple Answer is a far safer way for Blizzard to proceed. They have shown themselves capable of telling good, exciting adventure stories where the brave heroes of Azeroth face off against an enemy army. If the Simple Answer is what they go with, then that's all the expansion will be. But is that a story that's worth telling? Granted, if you can mine some thematic resonance or well-constructed characters out of a simple story, you're succeeding. But if you keep things simple just for the sake of making it an easier story to tell, well, then that's a bit disappointing.

If they go with the Complex Answer, there's a good chance that the expansion will be absolutely bananas, and confusing and weird and possibly very broken. Yet I, for one, love that kind of story. A polished and clear story has its merits, but an ambitious catastrophe is also an admirable and enjoyable event to behold.

I'm not worried too much about the gameplay. Sure, I wish every expansion came with a new class, but the WoW formula works, and it'll be fine as long as they can keep the content fresh and balanced (more dungeons! More dungeons I say!) But with the story, I think that this is a game that can definitely afford to get really crazy, and I hope that they do.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Vignette Encounters

One of the fun new things discovered in the Warlords alpha is that there will be a new kind of outdoor enemy we will come across. These guys are essentially outdoor bosses, and it looks like they can be soloed, but the main idea of them is that they will have interesting and complex mechanics that go beyond your typical mob.

One of the defining traits of WoW is that bosses have their own unique mechanics. In Vanilla, a lot of dungeon bosses, and indeed raid bosses, were basically just buffed-up versions of typical enemies, but this has evolved so that now we have some insanely complicated fights, like Horridon, or Jin'do the Godbreaker.

Out in the world, however, it's pretty rare to come across an enemy that has more than a couple abilities. Even named enemies will often be fairly simple and fall to our usual attacks without too much trouble.

Vignettes appear to be a new way of doing rare mobs, though to be clear I'm not sure if these guys will really be rare spawns.

Firstly, these vignette enemies will be elite when you first encounter them (though I think this is more about trickiness of fighting them than an actual indication of difficulty.) Defeating them (and doing so sometimes involves fighting your way through numerous additional enemies) will yield blue-quality loot specific to that encounter.

What's interesting is that supposedly, once you have defeated a Vignette enemy, you will be able to return to them and fight them again, only this time they will be non-elite.

Blizzard has stated as a goal that they want to make questing a more dynamic and enjoyable experience, and I think that little challenges like this, especially with their valuable loot, could make exploration a more rewarding experience.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Blackfathom Deeps (and others dungeons?) remade as Scenarios

I'm not quite sure what exactly this portends, but look at this video:

What we have here is what appears to be a scenario in a revamped Blackfathom Deeps. It appears that it's still intended for low-level players, given how easily everything dies, and while the layout remains unchanged (much like the Cataclysm revamps,) there are numerous new enemies, and many of the old bosses appear to have been sacrificed by Twilight's Hammer to a more Megaera-style version of Aku'mai, the old Hydra.

I have no idea what role this will play in the game, but it's exciting to see. Will we be seeing old dungeons appearing as scenarios? Or perhaps solo-content? What other instances will get the same treatment?

This is definitely a big thing to keep an eye on.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Faction Pride Gap

The Horde won the Azeroth Choppers competition, surprising maybe three people. World of Warcraft is a fairly balanced game. Last time I checked, there were actually a greater number of Alliance players than Horde, but ever since the introduction of Blood Elves to the Horde (who had previously not had any "pretty" races,) the two sides have been fairly even worldwide (certain servers, of course, especially PvP ones, are not so balanced.)

And yet, for some reason, Horde players seem to be far more passionate about their faction. Why is that? Why was the result of this competition decided before it began?

DISCLAIMER: This is a very tricky thing to figure out, and I'm not a sociologist. This is a subjective question to answer.

1. Simple Colors:

People are more passionate about the color red. Yes, we, especially those in the US and Western Europe (where I imagine the largest concentration of WoW players are) tend to associate Blue with "the good guys," (see Lightsabers, or the Cold War) and Red with the "bad guys," there is something about that low-frequency light that gets our hearts pumping. Indeed, the very reasons why we might think of Blue and Red representing Good and Evil respectively could have something to do with the fact that Blue is typically associated with calmness and serenity, and thus peacefulness, while Red is typically associated with passion and fervor, and thus belligerence. And when we talk about faction pride, we're talking about passion.

2. The Fervor of the Converted:

"The Fervor of the Converted" is used typically to refer to religion. Someone who converts to another religion will often become a very devout adherent to that new faith. It makes sense - if you were raised in said faith, it might not seem like something special. It's something you're used to, and while you might still totally believe in it, you might just treat it as a normal aspect of your day-to-day life. Meanwhile, a convert will take to his or her new faith with greater excitement because it is new, and by having made a conscious decision to join that faith, they have invested personally with their willpower, and want to get everything they can out of it.

What does this have to do with the Alliance or Horde? Well, everyone who plays WoW is, physically at least, human (not counting bots.) By choosing the faction that does not have humans, and is in fact opposed to humans, the player is making a kind of investment in a new identity, and thus will feel more passionate in identifying with that choice.

3. Symbolism and Propaganda:

The Horde has better symbolism and a clearer vision for what their faction represents. Take the competing symbols for the Horde and Alliance. The Horde has this cool kind of barbarian Omega - instantly recognizable to the extent that they were able to carve Azshara into it. The Alliance has, in recent years, been symbolized by just a lion face. Do lions really fit as a representation of the Alliance? (Other than, just like in the best Firefly episode, the fact that "Alliance" sounds a bit like "A lion.") The Alliance symbol used to be a stylized "L" for Lordaeron, which you can still see when you get flagged for PvP, and frankly I liked this more abstract symbol better.

But then let's take some other examples. What can a Horde hero cry out as they charge into battle? "For the Horde!" The Alliance has no such catchy slogan. What is the Horde's leader called? "Warchief." Pretty straightforward. The Alliance? Until recently, there was none. Now it's "High King," which... this is just a personal gut feeling, admittedly, but it doesn't have the same ring to it.

4. Cutting Loose versus Restraint

Part of the reason we play video games is that we get to simulate doing things we'd never be able to do in real life. Most of us would never pick up a sword and hack away at another person, even if it was a dangerous bandit out on the road. Any WoW character is going to be a one-person natural disaster. If you look up the statistics on my least-played character, he's probably got a kill-count that would make most serial killers jealous.

The Alliance is largely characterized by acting defensively. In fact, the only times you ever see them invading a place are to respond to an attack or to counter the Horde (and doing so is, itself, responding to attacks that were known as the First and Second Wars.) That makes them pretty clearly heroic, but it also makes them a little passive. Meanwhile, the Horde is entirely self-motivated, and gets to act aggressively. These days, we think of wars of conquest as pretty unconscionable, but in the safe world of video games, we get to live out that fantasy of raiding, looting and pillaging. And the Horde just gets to do that more than the Alliance.

5. Size, Power, and Humorlessness

For some strange reason, Blizzard has a thing about size. Who is the silliest, most-comedic race in the Warcraft setting? Gnomes (or maybe Goblins.) Yet as the size of a playable race goes up, it gets more serious. Dwarves are still fairly silly, being crazy drunks. Yet when we get up to races like Draenei, Orcs, or Tauren, there's very little humor there. These races are generally treated with a great deal of seriousness. It's not a hard and fast rule - there are definitely some silly characters among the larger races, but the smaller ones are almost always jokes. While the BC and Cataclysm races gave the Alliance two big races and the Horde a medium and a small race, the general trend is that Horde has big behemoths and Alliance has more little guys.

Now, humor is a wonderful thing, but it can be kind of the opposite of passion. The sillier you are, the less seriously you take your cause, and thus, the less passionate you are. Indeed, look at how frustrated people were by the fact that the new quests in Westfall and Redridge Mountains were silly genre parodies. The very fact that Pandaren (who admittedly are an exception to that size pattern) were center-stage in this most recent expansion got people furious, despite the fact that, actually, outside of Valley of the Four Winds and bits of Jade Forest (really just Lorewalker Cho and the Hozen,) the expansion took itself very seriously.

The Alliance generally has a sillier time. And while some of us like that change of pace, to others it's a total turn off and an interruption of the fantasy that they had signed up for.

6. The Creators are There With Us

Look, I know a lot of people feel that there's too much complaining about "Horde bias" amongst the people at Blizzard, and I also recognize that those creators are also trying to work on it (Metzen in particular has taken to wearing Alliance clothing and associating himself with the Alliance,) but ultimately, it's still not totally working. Blizzard wanted to leave Siege of Orgrimmar with Alliance on top, but what they wound up doing was having an entire raid tier that was all about the Horde, Orcs, and Warchiefs. And they're going to follow it up with an entire expansion of the original Horde, but now without that pesky original Alliance.

The problem is that the Alliance isn't really getting fleshed out. Yes, the scales have started to tip back in favor of Alliance power after the de-throning of Garrosh, but Alliance society independent of the Horde has basically been in stasis. Supposedly Varian has become High King, but there's no real indication of what that means that is different from how it was during the war in Northrend.

I can't blame Blizzard for being prouder of what they've done with the Horde, because they're probably more passionate about it for the exact same reasons players are. But unlike players, it is the responsibility of the game's creators to treat both factions with the same amount of care and passion, because if they don't, it reinforces the gap.

Feeling Blue:

Granted, most of us expect that Alliance players will also wind up getting their new chopper mount as well, because of achievements and all that mount-collecting and keeping the game balanced. Still, I wonder if the game's makers and its players will ever find a way to deal with these issues and balance out the faction pride.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Alpha Clarification

Blizzard has clarified the status of the current test. What has opened today is what in previous expansions was called the "Friends and Family Alpha." Previously, the F&F Alpha was a closed test for Blizzard employees and their friends and family. In that past, this was typically covered by an NDA, but in this case, they're allowing people to post whatever they want about it (which is typically what happened anyway) and they've invited some prominent online WoW personalities.

So this means that the average joe like you or I will not get access quite yet.

Here's hoping that this phase will quickly turn into a more typical alpha, though really, let's just hope that we get some cool stuff to tide us over before we get what will be a swift arrival of the live game.

Cue the Fanfare! Alpha Invites are Going Out!

Well, to paraphrase a certain Terran, Hell, it's about time.

Invites are finally going out for the Alpha for Warlords of Draenor. Yes, it looks like they're sticking with the name Alpha, but that's fine, because FINALLY!

I'm sure many players will be opted in to test out the new expansion, but to warn everyone:

There is no guarantee this time. Without the Annual Pass, we won't all get to participate. Some of us will. I think you can especially expect some of the big WoW personalities to get access, because this sort of testing is also a kind of marketing. Still, don't expect the Warlords AlphaBetaGamma whatever to be as wide-open as the Mists one was. I am cautiously hopeful that I will be able to participate, but I don't expect to, and neither should you.

But the fantastic news is that, with the test going public, sources like MMO-Champion, Wowhead, and WoW Insider will be able to show us lots of stuff from the game that previously had to be handpicked by Blizzard.

We can expect a pretty nice flood of information over the coming weeks, and indeed, over the coming months.

Remember, though, that everything can change a lot (when I got into the Mists beta, the Jade Forest quest chains were wildly different, and oh boy, Monks got some changes as well.)

Still, this really starts the clock on releasing the game. In the past, I believe that the Betas have lasted 4-6 months, which suggests we'll be getting the new expansion as early as October, though I still have fingers crossed for September.

Anyway, this is the biggest milestone between announcement and release, so it's good to see it happening. And I will be checking quite frequently to see whether my invite has arrived...

Dev Watercooler: A New Look at Warlords Stats

Well, one of the things that I had long expected to be somewhat set in stone has changed. Blizzard just announced through their latest Dev Watercooler that we're going to see a different set of new secondary stats than what we had previously been shown.

The full list, as of June 4th, 2014:

Secondary: Haste, Critical Strike, Mastery, Multistrike, Versatility, Bonus Armor, Spirit

Minor (previously tertiary): Movement Speed, Avoidance, Indestructible, Leech

So let's go through them. Most of these stats are remaining unchanged, but you'll notice some new ones in the lists.

The old stats, or the ones that aren't really being changed, I'm going to leave out here.

Secondary Stats:

Multistrike will have a cap at 100%. Previously, the second potential extra strike had, I believe, half the chance to proc as the first one, making 100% a soft cap and 200% a hard cap. However, now both strikes will have the same chance, meaning that with 50% Multistrike, you will get either strike half the time (and thus have a 25% chance to get no strike or both, mathematically speaking.)

Bonus Armor, to be clear, is going to be tuned such that it's the strongest stat for tanks, which should encourage all tanks to get necklaces, cloaks, rings and trinkets that have it on them. So yes, you will need your set of tank gear, but at least it'll only be 5-7 slots (depending on weapon choice) instead of the full 16.

Versatility is the new stat in town. For each 1% Versatility you get, your damage, healing, and absorbs will be increased by 1% and the damage you take will be reduced by 0.5%. At first blush, this looks like a really boring stat, but the thing to keep in mind is that you get both bonuses. That means that DPS and healers can stack this for better survival while still getting a pretty clear bonus to their performance while tanks can stack it to increase their damage and threat (and self-heals, for that matter) while still making themselves tougher. I'll be watching this one closely to see how well they manage to make it scale (obviously they'll have to make it impossible to get 200%, or it might be a little on the over-powered side, as that would make you invincible.) I think it will just be a bit tricky to tune this so that it's no overpowered, but also does not elicit groans when someone gets it on one's gear.

Now, some of the previously-announced stats are going away. Amplify they cited as basically being too boring, and as gear progressed, it would become by far the most powerful stat for just about everyone. Readiness looked better, but they had a hard time making it actually provide a benefit that worked as well as other stats. If you have a cool down that increases your crit by 30%, how much readiness would you need to stack before that outweighed an equivalent amount of critical strike rating?

Minor Stats:

To reiterate, minor stats are the random ones that will sometimes show up on gear.

Movement Speed as a stat will have a pretty low cap, because they don't want it to have a huge effect on your character power. Class abilities are going to cover that area more, but this will give you a nice little boost.

Avoidance will reduce AOE damage taken, but at a far lower rate than class pets. While class pets are expected to stand in the fire, you are not.

Indestructible is the new name for Sturdiness, but it's simpler. An item with indestructible will simply not take durability damage.

Leech is the new form of Lifesteal. They want Leech to be beneficial for healers as well, so any damage or healing that you do will then heal you for your Leech percentage as well. I don't know if this also applies to self-heals.

Cleave is currently shelved, because they worry that while it's always good for healers, it's only situationally useful for DPS and nearly always worthless for tanks. They don't want people to see Cleave on a pair of gloves and say that it has to go to the healers, so for now they've taken Cleave out of the mix.

Obviously, we're still (still, grr...) pre-Beta, so these things could change, but it'll be exciting to try out the new stuff.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Rarity of Weapons

Leveling up through WoW, getting items for most slots is relatively easy. Perhaps the exception here is trinkets, which tend to drop only from quests or bosses, or are constructed by Jewelcrafters or Engineers. Once one hits the level cap, however, the biggest barrier is getting a better weapon.

The number of available weapons becomes a fairly small, limited list, and in general, weapons are only available through certain avenues.

Unlike armor or other pieces, in PvP, weapons require a commitment of time to attain them. You can't just convert Justice Points to honor and then pick up a 522 weapon. Instead, you must earn that honor within the space of that season. Granted, someone who actually PvPs will probably be able to do so - presumably a PvPer is getting all his or her gear via Honor and Conquest, and so it's not that much of a burden to ask that they... well... earn it.

In PvE, and the greater outdoor game, however, things are still fairly linear and limited. Not counting multiple versions for different difficulties, there are eleven total level 90 epic strength two-handed weapons that one can get through PvE or Crafting (not counting the random chance at one through heroic scenarios.) Since Wrath, weapons have been held as somewhat precious. One cannot buy them through Justice or Valor points (or their forebears from Wrath onward.) With the exception of crafted weapons, there's no way to grind them out. You just need to be lucky and get the drop. One can get a very decent set of 522 epics through Valor Points these days, and you can, through a whole lot of grinding, get 535 Burden-of-Eternity-boosted gear, but the best guaranteed weapon you can come across is 502, crafted over the course of about a month (if not more,) and these BC-throwback weapons only serve some specs, and not all (there's no caster weapon if I recall correctly.) And taking this out of the picture, the best guaranteed weapon is from the Arena of Annihilation, which is iLevel 450 - a full hundred levels lower than the gear a casual player can get from the Celestial world bosses.

So why are weapons so hard to get?

Well, the reason they're hard to get is also why it's so important to get them. Weapons make a big difference in one's throughput, meaning that an upgrade to one's weapon has a big impact on DPS and healing (tanks, admittedly, might be the least affected.) For physical classes, many of their abilities are based on weapon damage. Attack Power will raise your effective weapon damage, but the weapon itself provides a big chunk of that weapon damage on its own, giving it a disproportionate effect on your performance. For a long time, caster weapons were merely "stat sticks," having no intrinsic difference from another piece of gear. However, nowadays caster weapons have raw spell power on them as well, to give them that same sort of effect that physical weapons have.

The acquisition of a new weapon means a large jump in power, and I think that is why Blizzard makes it hard to get.

The question, then, is what the right way to make something hard to get is.

If you're a raider, even only through LFR, you can expect that if you run the raid enough times, you'll probably get that new weapon eventually, and it will help you be a stronger contributor to that endeavor. If you don't raid, or you are gearing an off-spec, you probably won't have much of an opportunity to get a weapon. Take my tankadin, for example. In order to get him a weapon for his Retribution spec, I need to switch out which kind of loot I'm looking for. I might want, say, the Shield off of Sha of Pride, but also the Sword. If I "roll" for one role, I rule out getting the other.

But let's even set aside off-spec people. Should there be a way for non-raiders to get decent weapons? There used to be an old refrain that was "if you aren't a raider, why do you even need good gear?" I reject that for two reasons - the first is that the game can afford to be broad enough in scope that players of all types should have some kind of progression path. The other reason is that I think places like the Ordon Sanctuary mean that even if you aren't a raider, you need some top-notch gear to survive. Frankly I'd love to see more tough-as-hell outdoor areas for hardcore solo-or-small-group players, but it seems like there ought to be some reward for the difficulty.

There are counter-arguments to be made, however, against these many paths to fully gearing up. During Wrath and Cataclysm, Blizzard was upset that people had essentially skipped Ulduar or Firelands with the advent of new tiers of 5-man content (which, I think, used to fill this weapon-gap.) But I really don't think that's much of a cause for concern these days. It is very easy to go back and run old raids, and unlike the olden days (as in, pre 4.3,) the vast majority of the player base will be able to step into raids as soon as they come out. Back in BC, for example, a lot of guilds hadn't even finished Karazhan before Black Temple came out, but in the era of LFR, we basically all headed into Throne of Thunder as soon as the gates were opened (earlier, actually, because there was that sewer entrance.)

Would the acquisition of gear outside of raids draw people away from raids? It's possible, but then doesn't that tell you more about what people actually want out of the game? Admittedly, that's not a perfect argument. People didn't flock to Trial of the Crusader when 3.2 came out because they liked it better than Ulduar (I suppose there must be some people who did, but they are a minority,) but I think that if Blizzard is interested in emphasizing the "World" in World of Warcraft, they need to make it a viable option to be a wandering adventurer, and not always a member of some tight-knit small army.

And to do so, they really just need to give us a new option to get weapons.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Why We Can't Be Done With Orcs

Shortly after the announcement of Warlords of Draenor, I wrote a little editorial (though given that this is a blog on which I am the only contributor, all articles are essentially editorials) about how I'm sick of dealing with Orcs and the various permutations of the Horde. This is not a contradiction of that article, but I will acknowledge that there are reasons why we need to deal with Orcs some more.

But the reason is not what I think Blizzard thinks it is. The reason I think we need to deal some more with the Orcs is that we need to reestablish them as heroes.

Like most players, I would guess, my first exposure to the Warcraft universe was through World of Warcraft itself. Indeed, if you count each expansion, literally half the franchise has been WoW, both in terms of time and titles (unless there's a Warcraft I expansion that I've overlooked - here's my list: Orcs and Humans, Tides of Darkness, Beyond the Dark Portal, Reign of Chaos, the Frozen Throne.)

I'm fully in favor of Warcraft growing beyond its initial premise - the machinations of Titans, the Burning Legion, the Old Gods, and hopefully someone else good to balance out the latter two, have all managed to raise the stakes of a series that was once really just about a large barbarian army attacking an unsuspecting kingdom. But that doesn't mean that they can just leave behind that initial conceit. While I'd love to see the Alliance and Horde conflict settle into a Cold War (with all the intrigue that comes with it,) I know that Orcs vs Humans is right there in the genes.

Granted, I think that they focus way more on the Orc side of that equation than the humans, and while many would say "well duh, the humans are boring because they're just like us," I will counter with the argument "Warcraft humans are not anything like real humans. They are pygmy offspring of giant viking-like barbarians who are themselves flesh-cursed descendants of sentient robots created by space-gods."

But I don't think that we always need to have the Orcs represent a barbarian army. Indeed, much of the development for the Orcs that started in Warcraft III was about establishing them as something much more than that. It was suggested that the Orcs only became so aggressive because of a perceived threat, which was then exacerbated by the whole "drinking demon blood" thing.

A lot of that development kind of back-slid, though, and while the story of Garrosh and his rise and fall makes for a decent story, it has also, I would contend, really ruined the good will the Orcs earned while under Thrall's leadership. One could argue, though, that it makes things a little more nuanced (and nuance is almost always a good thing for making interesting characters.) Essentially, what Garrosh proved is that while the Orcs might not be evil at heart, it's pretty easy to whip them up into a belligerent and, frankly, genocidal frenzy. And Warlords of Draenor suggests that even without a past precedent of a violent, aggressive Horde fueled by demonic magic, Orcs were always capable of that.

And that's fine. But here's what we need now:

We need to see whether Thrall's relatively peaceful (or at least responsible) Horde, which focused more on creating a sustainable society instead of subsisting entirely on conquest, was a fluke, or if it was the way that the Horde can redefine itself moving forward.

The appointment of Vol'jin as the first non-Orc Warchief was an interesting move, but I also fear we might not hear much from him in Warlords of Draenor. It might be best to think of Warlords as more of a throwback to celebrate 20 years of Warcraft and 10 of WoW. Whether a throwback is enough to base an expansion around remains to be seen.

But what I want to see is the Orcs working to redeem themselves again. During Mists, we barely saw any Orcs opposing Garrosh. Basically there was Thrall, Aggra, and Saurfang. Granted, we did see people like Nazgrim, who clearly didn't want to back Garrosh but did so out of a sense of duty, but there was very little sense of a resistance among the Orcs.

I think that was a bit of a missed opportunity, frankly. Players could be those Orc representatives, but there wasn't much in the way of lore. And that doesn't really paint the Orcs in a positive light.

I know that Warcraft can't be all smiles and rainbows, like Diablo, but for all the darkness and brutality of the world, it's actually a fairly optimistic setting. The idea of the Orcs being fundamentally good is, I think, one of the most powerful ideas of the setting. It's fine if they need to go through dark periods, like a drug addict having a relapse, but I want to see the Orcs fighting hard to walk that straight and narrow path.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Heart of the Valorous and Waiting on the Warlords

Many, I'm sure, are enjoying the double-rate of Valor gains currently live. This should make further upgrading one's gear a little easier, given that all 5.4 gear has been altered so that it can be upgraded four times, rather than two. I know that I have used the buff to raise my Flex-mode sword on my Death Knight to Normal-mode level, and it looks like I can now hit 300k DPS on him, which is pretty damn awesome, as that's ten times as much as I was doing by the end of Cataclysm.

What is the purpose of this buff, though? Why are we getting it now?

There are two answers I can come up with - the cynical answer and the hopeful one.

The cynical answer is that Wildstar is coming out in early June. Wildstar is a very cool-looking new MMO from NCSoft that appears to share a lot of the cartoonish art style and comic outlook of WoW. Wildstar appears to the latest challenger to the MMO throne, and while I'm always hesitant to call something a "WoW-Killer," I will say that it's the first MMO since WoW that's really drawn my interest in a serious way (though since it is PC-only, I won't be playing it.)

Giving a buff like this might encourage people to pick up WoW again if they've gone into "inter-expansion lull mode," and thus draw attention away from a competitor.

The more hopeful explanation (not that it is mutually exclusive with the previous one) is that there might be some big reveal planned for the end of the Heart of the Valorous buff's duration. Otherwise I don't really know why they would end the buff on the tenth, and not just let it continue for the remainder of Mists of Pandaria.

We are now in June, and we have still not begun the Beta for Warlords of Draenor (sad to say, but I think I can definitively say that the time-advantage from having had 5.4 out before Warlords' announcement is pretty much irrelevant now.) Frankly, for both crowd-pleasing and cynical competitor-sabotage purposes, it would behoove Blizzard to start up a Public (but not Open) Beta asap.

One of the frustrating things about waiting for news regarding Warlords is that we haven't really gotten a sense of what is taking so long. Warlords does not have a new class, as Wrath and Mists did. Likewise, there isn't any pre-90 content. Every expansion previous has had something that had to be built in the world for lower-level players. BC had two zones each for the Draenei and Blood Elves. Wrath had the Death Knight starting experience. Cataclysm had... well, Cataclysm. And Mists had the Wandering Isle. but Warlords is truly built as an expansion for characters 90+ only.

The only culprits I could imagine are the garrisons or the revamped character models - something that they never promised would all be in-game with 6.0 (and as cool as that would be, I'd rather they just get the expansion out.)

On the subject of Garrisons, though, it's hard to say. We got that preliminary article about the Garrisons, but as of yet the details are still a little on the hazy side. We don't yet know just how central a role the Garrisons will play. The recent revelations of having smaller outposts that are linked to your Garrison in other zones does suggest that they will be a pretty big deal. I wonder, then, if this was an idea that they came up with later, and had to retroactively redesign a few things, somewhat like how they had planned for Townlong Steppes and Dread Wastes to be a single zone originally.

Obviously, I don't mean to downplay the creation of the more standard expansion content either. Zones, quests, dungeons, and raids all take a lot of effort to put together. But given that by the time the Heart of the Valorous buff expires, it will have been exactly nine months since the start of 5.4, one begins to get a little antsy. Surely they've been working a lot in all that time, and likely before it. Yet for all the stuff we've been hearing about better streamlining of the expansion process and the desire to come out with them more frequently, Warlords looks to be arriving like clockwork, once again, two years after the previous one.

So if I were Blizzard, I'd at least throw the players a bone here. Give us some big preview. Show us how far you've come. Otherwise, I expect a lot of PC-owning players (which has got to be a majority, right? I grew up in the 80s and 90s, so I still think of Macs as being the underdogs, as crazy as that may sound nowadays) might decide to try that shiny new MMO.