Version 4.0.1’s been out for a week now, and it’s still pretty well broken. The “Cogwheel of Doom” bug – mousing over any object that turns the cursor into a cogwheel, indicating it can be interacted with – is making the seasonal Headless Horseman boss difficult to defeat, since your tank crashes the moment the encounter begins. A lot of the newly implemented changes – abbreviated talent trees, redesigned classes, a new points system that replaces the old Emblem grind, resilience only affecting PVP damage – are going to be great once everything settles down, but the game is hilariously unstable right now and has been for a week.
With all that in mind, it’s probably safe to say that Wrath of the Lich King is over. In a way, this is the only time you can really effectively review an MMO, when all the bosses are on farm and everyone outgears most of the instances. You have to look back on it, rather than trying to predict what tomorrow’s going to bring.
Wrath was an experiment. Blizzard took the most popular online game in the world and dramatically reworked its approach. It’s a sign of the times, really; no endeavor can survive for long if it strictly appeals to its own die-hard audience. You have to pull in new blood eventually, and Wrath of the Lich King has done that. It’s an interesting example of how game design in general, and MMO design in specific, has changed over the last five years.
Catering to Casuals
Most of the people who complain about Wrath‘s casual-friendly raid design are people who were in Black Temple/Sunwell guilds during Burning Crusade, which accounts for roughly 10% of the player base. Statistically, according to sites like Wowjutsu, 5% of the raiding community during BC cleared Sunwell Plateau.
It’s not particularly surprising. Gearing up required a major time investment and farming Karazhan until your eyes bled, followed by farming each successive tier of raiding until your eyes rolled out of your skull. The people you saw standing around in Shattrath in full T6, using shiny weapons no one else had, were the end product of a bizarre eugenics program meant to weed out the people who had done something over the course of the last six months other than play World of Warcraft. It’s surprising that any of us put up with it at all, and it’s not surprising that people who managed to excel in that environment have walked away with it with a bad case of special snowflake syndrome.
The approach in Wrath has been to implement a near-total gear reset with every new content patch, as well as allowing casual players to gear up almost entirely from heroics. It hasn’t always been a perfect process (particularly in tier 7, when 25-man raiding was still essentially required to progress), but it did mean that anyone could hit level 80, run heroics for about a week, and be ready to take their spot in a raid lineup.
Once you got into 25-man raiding during Burning Crusade, you were also signing up for an unpaid position as a cat herder. Like a lot of things about multiplayer gaming, when you get into it, you’re deliberately deciding to put up with a lot of truly ridiculous crap – internet problems, loot drama, computer issues, backseat raid leading, wandering attention spans, etc. – in search of that one golden moment when everything goes right.
Wrath gave us the option to focus on ten-man raids instead, which are a lot friendlier to the average player. It opened up the raiding game to millions of players who, in Burning Crusade, would’ve stalled out around Gruul’s Lair, and for that alone, you have to consider it a success.
In one of WoW‘s twenty-five-man raids, the designer can comfortably assume that the group will contain at least two members of each of the nine classes. As such, an encounter can be designed to require the use of a specific class ability, theoretically without providing an arbitrary amount of additional difficulty. That’s in an ideal situation, of course, and anyone who raided during BC can probably tell you about a few times where such was not the case. (Just about every die-hard BC raider I know has a horror story about some intensely unpleasant person who wound up with a Sunwell raid spot entirely because he or she played a resto shaman.)
In Wrath, each encounter had to be designed so that it could be completed by a ten-man group, which meant a correspondingly lower chance of every class being represented. If you run into a wall on a certain boss in Wrath, it’s down to a failure of execution or gear, rather than having to recruit any schmuck you see who’s playing the right character.
Questing and Narrative
I originally was going to talk about these separately, but in the end, they’re the same thing. The story in WoW is delivered mainly through its questing, and both were vastly improved in Wrath.
One of the main complaints you can make about Burning Crusade is that from 2.0 to 2.3 or so, the story is either incoherent or nonexistent. No real effort is made to tie the stories of the various zones in Outland to the endgame raids, to the point where third-party sources are usually needed to figure out why you’re supposed to be killing a given boss in the first place. (Well, aside from how he’s got epics you want.)
Wrath of the Lich King is a more streamlined experience almost from the moment you install it. Each zone has at least one story and usually more, most of which tie back into the central plot of the expansion. Arthas is an active presence as early as Howling Fjord, and you’re never left with any doubt as to why you’re fighting him. There’s a story here, told simply and well.
The quest design has improved markedly even over Burning Crusade. You still do more than your share of hunting the wily and dangerous Assless Bear, but there’s a lot of variety in quest design that simply wasn’t present in the past. The two major facets of the game that really make a difference are phasing, which actually lets you permanently adjust the world via your actions, and the careful, sparse use of vehicle-based gameplay, allowing you to ride a dragon, flee from werewolves, drive a tank, or pal around with a friendly storm giant.
There are gaps in the quest design, such as how it’s nearly impossible to find people to help you with five-man quests in Icecrown unless they start the chain along with you, but overall, Wrath’s quests are a huge improvement for WoW as a whole.
Vanilla WoW was decidedly low fantasy; Burning Crusade was a bizarre sort of magic-infused science fiction; Wrath is an Iron Maiden album cover.
The general Warcraft aesthetic seems to be something like “whatever the designers thought was cool at the time,” and Wrath reflects that starting very early on. The crystal spires and blatantly magical weaponry of BC gets quickly replaced by dark colors and heavy metal spikes; leather armor is decorated with crudely broken tusks and chunks of animals. It’s a sparse color palette that reflects the tundra that most of the game is set on.
Ulduar, the tier 8 raid, is probably the single best dungeon this game has yet produced. You’re delving into lost secrets of an ancient race, and you go from steampunk to Lovecraftian horror and back again without it seeming odd or forced. The armor sets are some of the best in the game, particularly the druid gear, and the raid encounters are easily the most memorable in the entire expansion.