The Battle for Azeroth expansion to World of Warcarft has been out for a couple of months now, long enough to play around with it, get used to its quirks, and discover some of its surprises. We have leveled up a few of our Alliance characters and just started playing through the Horde experience, so there are plenty of things we just haven’t seen yet, but here’s our take on what’s working, what isn’t, and what’s going on so far.
It’s beautiful. All of it. The landscapes, the buildings, the gear, the skies, everything is visually incredible. Since Mists of Pandaria, really, the visual design teams have been improving with every expansion, but in BfA the terrains really shine. We still spend so much of our playing time just pausing to look at the artwork.
The questline stories in the zones are great. We don’t usually read quest text too carefully, but this time it’s worth taking the time to see what the characters have to say. There are a lot of compelling and entertaining individual stories out in the world.
The Tortollans are the best new NPCs in a long time—crotchety old turtle people who want to play games and tell you stories! They add some wonderful comic relief to the more serious events going on in the world.
Boralus and Dazar’alor feel like real, living cities, full of people, with their own neighborhoods and back alleys and stories going on at the periphery of your adventure. Boralus is the quasi-British age-of-sail/smuggler/pirate town of your fantasy dreams, and Dazar’alor is a gorgeous Mesoamerican-inspired city of living gods and golden pyramids. They are both amazing places to spend time in and hands-down the most successful built environments we’ve seen in WoW so far.
The music is fabulous all-round. From epic and rousing to serene and unobtrusive, they all come with interesting real-world comparisons or sources of inspiration.
The number of female characters in the storytelling has increased noticeably, and women are depicted as active decision-makers. Because even though this is a fantasy world, a lot of it is based on our real one and you wouldn’t want to be historically inaccurate.
On the Alliance side, the combination of ferry stations and flight points is a great demonstration of world-internal logic at work, and it works really well from the UX (user experience) point of view. Do the Horde have anything similar?
The mission table is back, stripped down and streamlined to just about the most efficient version you can imagine, but also feeling pretty pointless. There aren’t many followers to collect, the rewards are uninspiring, and getting War Resources to run the mission table is doable but tiresome. It doesn’t feel like compelling content, but it’s not a great drag, either.
The Heart of Azeroth is a similarly stripped down and streamlined version of the Artifact weapons from Legion. It works just fine, but it’s not very interesting. Leveling up the Heart of Azeroth with azerite is relatively painless, but there’s also nothing exciting about it.
The azerite gear tied to the Heart of Azeroth is a mixed bag. On one hand, it’s fun to pick bonus traits and some of the perks can really make a difference to how your character plays. On the other hand, the gear is hard to get and clunky to use. Having to wait an indeterminate amount of time to level up your Heart of Azeroth before your upgraded gear actually becomes an upgrade doesn’t feel good.
The two of us play together and we play strictly PvE. We’re not interested in doing larger group content or anything that even feels like PvP. This means that a lot of the new content this expansion—islands, warfronts, war mode—just isn’t for us. That’s fine, and we don’t mind there being content in the expansion that isn’t for us, but it does leave max-level content feeling a little threadbare.
The faction conflict story is back. Again. There’s never been anything interesting about faction conflict and there’s still nothing interesting about it. Despite what Blizzard seems to think, “Horde vs. Alliance” is not the core of WoW. The core of WoW is beating up monsters and taking their stuff. We don’t need faction conflict to motivate us to go to Kul Tiras and Zandalar to beat up monsters and take their stuff. Just the fact there are monsters there who have stuff we can take is more than enough. If Blizzard really felt like they needed a story reason for us to go to these new places, having Jaina/the spirit of Vol’jin show up and say “Hey/Hey mon, there’s something strange in Kul Tiras/Zandalar and it don’t look good!” would be plenty.
Not only is Blizzard pushing hard on the faction conflict this time, they’ve chosen to do so in a heavy-handed, aggravating way. On both the Alliance and Horde sides, players have been made to play through content that is needlessly cruel but unskippable.
Fortunately, the actual content of Battle for Azeroth has very little to do with faction conflict, but that in itself is a problem. There are three narrative threads running through this expansion: the internal problems of Kul Tiras and the Zandalari, the Alliance vs. Horde faction conflict, and Magni’s attempts to heal the wounded Azeroth. None of these three threads is well integrated with the other two. While the Kul Tiras and Zandalari stores are compelling on their own, the faction conflict is annoying, and Magni’s planetary first aid is tedious and repetitive. It feels like Blizzard had three different ideas for this expansion, only had time to develop one, but tried to do all three anyway.
You can’t seem to be able to go beyond two advancements without doing at least some PvP group content (islands). Not a great design choice. (Corrected)
Did they have to destroy Teldrassil?
On balance, there’s a lot to like about Battle for Azeroth, and we’re certainly going to keep playing. At the same time, there are some annoying problems that are hard to ignore. Some people have speculated that Blizzard has an A team and a B team putting out expansions alternately. That may not be true, but there certainly are some aspects to BfA that remind of us of what went wrong back in Warlords of Draenor, when we got a beautiful new world to explore, but an overarching story best ignored and some poorly designed mechanics that dragged the experience down.
Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.
We got our first toons leveled to 120 about two months ago. Typically we level our Night Elf druid pair first because you just can’t beat a druid duo of a tank plus dps with an occasional heal for versatility! This time, though, we chose two humans for strategic reasons.
We haven’t played these two together before. A paladin tank and a mistweaver monk work together fine, though. We just won’t do anything terribly fast—our damage output isn’t high, but we do tend to stay alive through everything except the nastiest dps-heavy fights.
Because of real life, we’ve been going slowly but steadily, working on accumulating the required reputation to unlock allied races. We’re not yet there on the Horde side, but we just made it to exalted with the 7th Legion on our humans!
Allied races, here we come! 😀
Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.
My very first WoW character, created towards the end of vanilla, was a female gnome mage. I still have her—specced the same, too—although I don’t play her as my primary anymore.
Anyway, I was looking for something else on the Internet when I fell into a hole on Tumblr and found all of this AWESOME female gnome fanart. I’ll share just five of my favorites below. And this is just the tip of the iceberg!
An alchemist by Boz:
Love the thoughtful expression!
A custom portrait of a gnome with goggles by Azuralynx (aka Niniel-Gnoll):
The grin! 😀
Sketch of a mage by Bryss (aka Alynissia):
Chromie, the dragon who prefers a gnome humanoid form, by mhazaru:
A death knight by Flyingterra—she clearly means business!
The range of illustration techniques is impressive, but even more so is how all of these artists capture the range of possibilities for gnome characters.
We haven’t talked about music lately. Time to fix it!
One of the new allied races in Battle for Azeroth, the latest World of Warcraft expansion, is Dark Iron Dwarves. (Note: I don’t think there’s much actual info as of yet, but people have been gathering mentions at a Wowhead thread.)
As I’ve mentioned before, female Dwarves are my absolute favorite race / gender combo to play in WoW, so I’m going to want at least one. 🙂 Consequently, my WoW thoughts have revolved heavily enough around Dwarves to push into the real life in the form of music befitting these mountain-dwellers.
Below are some of my current most favorite Dwarf-ish pieces, whether originally something quite different or composed specifically with Dwarves in mind.
The next is a bit special. A music-heavy version of The Lord of the Rings was produced by the Finnish theater company Ryhmäteatteri in 1988 and 1989. Bilbo’s song “I Sit Beside the Fire and Think” from The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter III (“The Ring Goes South”) was turned into a song for the play, and it’s wonderfully meditative and solemn.
The lyrics were originally translated into the Finnish version (Taru sormusten herrasta) by Panu Pekkanen; for the play they were slightly modified. The melody was composed by Toni Edelmann and sung by Timo Torikka.
This next piece was made by Simon Swerwer for the 2012 computer game Dwarf Fortress:
Lastly, Neil Finn’s “Song of the Lonely Mountain” (the end credits song for Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) because of the bittersweetness, melancholy, and—just perhaps—glimmer of hope that comes through.
I was browsing my WoW screencaps for something entirely different when my eye fell on two shots from the Dalaran inscription trainer’s place. (This is in the Legion version of Dalaran.) Both are actually from inside the book-filled cupola: the first looks up towards the impossibly high ceiling, the second down towards the trainers’ room floor.
Neat, right? Well, I wondered whether anyone’s actually done anything similar for real and hit the Internet. And I found some!
The library is situated in the neo-Gothic Morrice Hall building that previously housed the Presbyterian College of Montreal from 1871 to 1961.
None of them are exactly the same as the game library cupola, of course: apart from the the scale of the rooms, the scale and direction of the bookcases might differ. But apparently it isn’t terribly far-fetched to make a round multi-storey library and pack it chock-full. 😀
For my Tauren shaman, the Midsummer celebration is very important. It is a time to honor the spirits of the fire, which she does by dancing in her Flamedancer Regalia.
My Gnomish warlock is a different case. You see, when it comes to fire, warlocks are professionals, so the Fire Festival is a bit of a bus-driver’s holiday for her. It’s the one time of the year when people who don’t know what they’re doing try to set things on fire, so if she hung around the festivities she would just find herself screaming at everyone:
“You’ve built that bonfire all wrong! There’s nowhere near enough kindling, the wood isn’t properly seasoned, it’s too close to the tent, and you put it upwind of the dance pole! Does no one here know what they’re doing but me!?”
So, for her, Midsummer is a time to get away from it all and go have her own private little fire way up in the snowy mountains where no one will bother her. She dresses appropriately for the climate in her Aurora-Seeker’s Garb.
I was able to find a decently matching shirt, so it looks like the dress has sleeves (Elegant Robes plus Golden Filigreed Shirt). Otherwise, I pushed the accent colors (headpiece, boots, gloves, shoulders, cloak) more towards red and orange. Finally, I borrowed a red wand and a red flower (Flash Wand, Penelope’s Rose) from my arcane mage’s Love Is in the Air mog.
Juhannus is the Finnish celebration of midsummer. People usually go to a summer cottage, burn bonfires, sauna bathe, and enjoy fresh food.
Or… in our case, this year, stay in town and play! I’ve just started cleaning up my quest lists and churning out the last Legion achievements etc. in earnest before Battle for Azeroth launches in August.
I could even have a juhannus sauna in game. I’m pretty sure one of the Pinchwhistle Point huts in Spires of Arak is a sauna:
Tile floor, wooden benches, a large wood pail, and a stove for heating and making steam—sounds like a sauna to me!
Happy Midsummer! Hyvää juhannusta!
Images: 3-laptop evening by Eppu Jensen. Screencap from the MMORPG World of Warcraft, Warlords of Draenor expansion.
Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.
One of the big recent developments in World of Warcraft is Blizzard’s announced plans to create Classic servers on which players can play “Vanilla” World of Warcraft, that is, the original game as released in 2004. It is something that a fair amount of people want, as demonstrated by the fact that people have been playing homemade versions on pirate servers for years. I first started playing WoW in 2006, shortly before the release of the first expansion. Although I’m not much interested in playing on a Classic server myself, I do feel some nostalgia for the original game as I first experienced it. I’ve been thinking lately about that nostalgia and what it is that makes me remember those early experiences with such fondness.
The Way We Were
Part of my nostalgia for early WoW is separate from the game. I started playing during my last few years of grad school, when I was writing my dissertation. WoW offered a break from the long daily slog of research and writing. I also have fond memories of the tv shows I watched then, the meals that Eppu and I shared, the podcasts I listened to on the commute to and from my adjunct teaching job in the next state over, and other things that distracted me from the work. Also, fairly soon after starting to play, I joined up with a guild (a collection of players who shared an in-game chat channel and played some of the game’s harder content together), and some of my good memories are not so much of the game as of the friends I made through it.
But there is also something about the game itself that stays in my mind. I am nostalgic not just for who I was when I first played WoW but for what WoW was when I first played it, and I’ve been trying to pin down just what it was about the game that made it feel so different from the other games I played then and have played since. The conclusion I’ve come to is: the ideas were good, but the execution was flawed.
2004 was a different time, in gaming terms. While massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) had existed before, in titles like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, the MMORPG genre was still relatively new and unfamiliar to most gamers. The Blizzard team that created WoW didn’t have much to go on in figuring out what an MMORPG should be like. Playing through that original game, you can tell that they weren’t working toward a polished vision but were doing their best to translate experiences drawn from single-player games, pen-and-paper role-playing, novels and comic books to a multi-player online format.
Into the Woods
The game world is divided into numerous regions, called zones, each of which has its own map, terrain, and set of quests for characters to complete. Most zones also have their own theme, aesthetic, and background story. One of the zones that my first character encountered early on was Duskwood.
Duskwood was a creepy, dark forest, halfway between fairy tale and Gothic novel. One lone human village, Darkshire, held out against a menacing forest full of werewolves and a decrepit graveyard that spawned undead monsters. The road to Darkshire was a long, lonely path through the woods. Now and then, on either side, your character might see a distant lantern winking in the darkness, but wolves and giant spiders prowling the forest edge encouraged you to stay on the path. Once you got to Darkshire and started doing quests, you began to discover the horrors of the place bit by bit. One long series of quests took you back and forth between the village and the graveyard, doing favors for a crazy old man who lived out there, but if you paid attention to what he was asking you to do it gradually became clear that he had sinister intentions. At the climax of the zone, the old man unleashed Stitches, a fleshy undead monstrosity that lumbered towards Darkshire to attack the town. In your culminating act of heroism before leaving for the next zone, you helped the townsfolk stop Stitches and defend Darkshire.
The aesthetics of the zone were amazing. Everything from the creepy music to the small points of warm light made by the Darkshire torches against the looming forest contributed to the overall feel of Gothic horror. I still remember the thrill of waiting for Stitches to shamble out of the darkness as the NPCs (non-player characters) in the zone called out warnings from the road. The idea of the zone as a sort of Frankenstein by way of “Little Red Riding Hood” was brilliantly conceived.
The execution, though, was full of flaws, missteps, and poor choices. From the perspective of modern MMORPG design, it is clear to see what Duskwood did wrong. A large part of the zone is taken up with the road into Darkshire, where nothing happens and there are no quests to do or monsters to fight. Once you’ve taken that first trip to town, it’s just wasted space. Another large chunk of the zone is taken up with a mountainous area where higher-level players could sometimes fight a dragon, but which players at the level of the Duskwood quests had nothing to do with. Numerous quests, including the long Stitches chain, sent players repeatedly back and forth from one end of the zone to the other, so that a large part of players’ time in the zone was spent just traveling. Now, there are two ways in which WoW characters can travel faster: by riding a mount, which increases your movement speed, or by taking a flying “taxi” service from one designated flight point to another. In WoW‘s original design, characters at the Duskwood level did not have access to mounts, and there was only one flight point in each zone (Duskwood’s was in Darkshire). That meant that an awful lot of time wasted just running back and forth rather than fighting monsters, completing quests, exploring new areas, talking to NPCs, or anything else more interesting.
The execution of the Stitches quest chain, the core of the Duskwood experience, was also shaky. Getting the full effect of the slowly creeping horror required paying attention to subtle cues from NPCs, something that was easy to ignore when focusing on collecting the right parts from the right monsters to complete the latest quest. If you didn’t know Stitches was coming, you might not realize to stick around in Darkshire and wait for its onslaught. With multiple players in the zone, the Stitches attack would be triggered whenever any player got to the right stage of the quest chain, even if there were other players still on earlier phases. The result was a regular stream of attacks that could get annoying: Stitches was notorious for slaughtering lower-level players on the road to Darkshire (death in the game is not the end for your character, but getting yourself resurrected and ready to get back to questing costs time and in-game money), and, while waiting for Stitches to arrive, some of the NPCs in Darkshire would go on alert and stop responding to characters who were trying to do quests for them.
Many other zones in Vanilla WoW were similar: there were fascinating aesthetic and narrative ideas and you can see what the design team was trying to create, but they didn’t always know how to execute their vision or realize how their design would play out in practical terms.
Goblins, Why Did It Have to Be Goblins…
In the decade-plus since its release, WoW‘s design team has learned an enormous amount as the wider gaming community has developed more collective experience with what works and what doesn’t in an MMORPG. The functional design of more recent zones is much more polished, but that practical experience hasn’t always been put to use in the service of equally good aesthetic and narrative ideas. One place where the ideas failed to live up to the execution is Uldum.
Uldum was one of five zones introduced in the Cataclysm expansion, which came out in 2010. Uldum is a desert zone, a fantasy version of ancient Egypt inhabited by cat people. Compared with old Duskwood, Uldum was polished and smooth: quests were laid out to lead your character in a logical progression around the zone, other players’ actions did not interfere with yours, and crucial story transitions were carefully planned so that the world could change as your character progressed through the story. Half of the zone’s quests revolve around helping the cat people prepare for a civil war. The other half of the zone, though… Well… It’s different.
There’s a character in WoW called Harrison Jones. He’s an Indiana Jones parody. Harrison Jones had existed before Cataclysm but he was only used sparingly, in one-off joke quests. In Cataclysm, Harrison Jones took over. Half of Uldum was devoted to an extended parody of The Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with a Hitleresque goblin antagonist who spoke with an outrageous fake German accent. The questline made extensive use of new technology that allowed the game to render cutscenes—where the game pauses and shows you a short movie—that included your own character in with the NPCs. The execution of this quest chain was flawless, even innovative, but it was still at heart just an over-long Indiana Jones gag.
The Harrison Jones story also thoroughly undercut your character. Rather be the hero of your own story, you became Harrison Jones’s bumbling sidekick. All of the important story moments were up to him, while you were just there to do the grunt work. This storytelling choice did more than make for a boring, aggravating questing experience; it crushed the suspension of disbelief on which the game relies. We play in order to lose ourselves in a fantasy world, to imagine ourselves as heroes whose actions make a difference. Harrison Jones aggressively stomped on that illusion by turning our heroes into unimportant side characters and the game world into one long, tedious joke. The polish of the execution only served to make the hollowness of the idea more obvious. In Duskwood, even though we weren’t any more in control of the story than in Uldum, at least we got to explore it and experience it on our own terms. In Uldum, we’re just along for the ride.
In Duskwood, as elsewhere in the Vanilla world, the ideas were good, even if the execution was flawed. As the mechanical design of the game has gotten better, we’ve experienced a different kind of flaw. When WoW goes wrong today, it’s less because bad execution gets in the way of a good idea than because good execution exposes a bad idea.
Sunsets and Car Crashes
The difference between Duskwood and Uldum, I think, helps explain why I have such nostalgia for Vanilla WoW. In Vanilla, we had to struggle through a lot of poor mechanical design, but the reward for that struggle was a narrative and aesthetic experience that was bold, creative, and expansive. The experience was a bit like scrambling up a rocky cliff face and seeing a gorgeous sunset from the top. The climb itself wasn’t always fun and we might not want to do it again, but the effort it took was part of the experience that made the sunset worth seeing. Uldum, by contrast, was like driving a brand new car straight into a tree.
In the years since Vanilla, the mechanics of the game have been improved in numerous ways. The experience of playing is now smoother, more reliable, and cleaner than ever. I’m happy with that. I don’t miss the old design’s flaws and missteps. Despite some serious mistakes, like Uldum, the aesthetic vision of the game has not, on the whole, gotten worse. Most of current WoW‘s zones combine smooth mechanical design with a polished, well-developed narrative and artistic sense.
My nostalgia for the original game is not because there is anything wrong with the current game. I wouldn’t trade the current play experience for Vanilla. But the maturing of WoW‘s mechanical design means we have fewer experiences of laboring against bad mechanics to see good ideas shine through. There was something rewarding about old WoW that really can’t be recovered.
Will I ever play on a Classic server? Who knows? Maybe. I might make a new character and putter around a little bit, visiting old quests and NPCs who aren’t around any more, reminiscing about what it was like the first time I walked down a certain road or killed a tough monster. But that’s the problem with nostalgia: you can’t discover something a second time. My nostalgia for Vanilla WoW is tied up with overcoming problems that I’ve now gotten used to not having to deal with at all. If I go back and play original Duskwood again, my experience won’t be about uncovering the secrets at the heart of the dark forest, it’ll be about cursing the designer who made me walk all the way from one end of the zone to the other again, just to be squished by someone else’s Stitches halfway there. I could only consider seriously playing on a Classic server if the improved mechanics of the modern game were brought into it, but that would defeat the purpose of a Classic server.
Still, there are clearly plenty of people who feel differently, enough of them that Blizzard is making servers just for them. I wonder what it is that appeals to those players. What are they nostalgic for that’s worth going back to? What makes playing through the clunky mechanics of the old game worthwhile from their perspective? If you’re one of them, please share. I’d love to hear about what draws you back to Vanilla.
Images: Screenshots from World of Warcraft
Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.