The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, December 13, 2010

It's the End Of The World

Ah Blizzard. One day you’ll stop messing around. One day you’ll hook electrodes directly into my brain’s pleasure centers and convert me into a hideous but docile cybernetic drone. Every time I complete some mundane and repetitive task, like breaking rocks or hunting down one of the surviving free humans, I’ll receive a jolt of pure sense-of-accomplishment directly to the cortex.

That's the stuff.

I can’t wait, but until that glorious day there is WoW, and today there is the Cataclysm expansion.

The last days before a new expansion hits an MMO have a decidedly apocalyptic feel. Madmen rave from every street corner, the economy lies in shambles, and the nervous masses grasp at every scrap of news and whispered rumor. Guild leaders and moderators struggle to ease the troubled minds of their charges, but can they hide their own quiet doubts? They cannot, and the people sense it, and they fear…

Everything that is known and loved and loathed is put to the question. All the power and treasure and glory we have labored to amass are held cheap and tawdry. Is the Great Nerfing upon us, like the mad-eyed prophets say? Will everything be ruined, ruined forever? Will the servers melt into molten slag and all ones returned to zeroes? My god, what will happen to my character, my class, my guild?! Will I be spared? Will anyone?

Wait. Is that it? Is that the expansion I see coming now? What is that light? So bright as it breaks through. Illuminating. Burning. Beautiful and terrible… I can see it! I can see forever! And it sees us… (Transmission lost)

Can't you see it? Hear it? Feel it? Coming for us...

There is nothing on this earth like being in the first wave as an expansion goes live. The servers go up. New zones come online for the first time. All is quiet, peaceful, and perfect. Then a solid mass of berserk players arrives, and nothing will ever be ok again.

Imagine Omaha beach. No, imagine the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Except there are five hundred Allies of every nation, rank, and uniform pouring off the boats and only twenty Axis soldiers evenly spaced across the beach, each blithely patrolling their own little sector. And your commanding officer won’t let you advance until you’ve killed ten Axis soldiers and blown up five sections of barbed wire.

Soon there are giant piles of hundreds of dead Axis soldiers all across the beach, the Russian and American soldiers have begun fighting one another, and someone keeps shouting over and over that they can’t find the Bangalore torpedoes while everyone else mocks him. So it’s actually not like Omaha beach at all. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the Cataclysm expansion. That is beyond our scope. One could argue that it isn’t really possible to review an MMO. One would be wrong, but one could argue it. This is just intended to be a combination of my personal experiences going in face first, and some thoughts on Blizzard’s design philosophy and how it’s evolved. Plus some cool screenshots. (As always, click to see them full sized)

The first thing I noticed about the new zones, aside from how awesome they looked, was how linear they are. Blizzard has refined it’s “theme park” design school to an art. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You’re stuck on rails yes, but the rails make up a roller coaster. The game shuttles you neatly and efficiently from one quest hub to another. Great use is made of the “phasing” technology that was introduced in Wrath of the Lich King to give the illusion of progress and a world that changes based off your actions.

A host of cutscenes help move the story along.

One series of early quests in has you rallying and equipping a group of stranded, shipwrecked survivors. Just as you’re finally getting them back on their feet, an enemy attack wipes out the tiny outpost and sweeps you along to the next area. The campaign in the Mt. Hyjal zone has you aiding the druids in slowly pushing the enemy down the mountain. Enemy forces are actually driven out of areas and whole sections of forest re-grown based as you succeed. Of course, everyone else sees the exact same story as you, with little variation, but that's the price we pay for this level of dynamism in a theme-park style MMO.

There are even a few encounters with Deathwing himself.

This is, beyond any doubt, really cool. One of the most annoying things about MMO’s is that, by their very nature, it is hard to feel like you’re making any impact on the world. The dragon you slew needs to be there for the next person to slay, which makes your own victory seem just a little hollow. Seeing zones change and the story move forwards from stuff you did is extremely rewarding.

This level of linearity is not without problems. In my personal experience a single NPC didn’t appear in one of the early Cataclysm zones, which meant you couldn’t complete the quest they were related too, and progress through the entire zone was held up. Because of a single missing character, dozens of quests were completely inaccessible. The problem was fixed in 24 hours, and to be fair this was an incredibly smooth launch considering the sheer scale involved, but the linear nature of the new zones means they bottleneck very easily. If even one quest is bugged or broken it can be very hard to keep moving forward.

Fix. The. Bugs.

On a side note Blizzard appears to have dispensed with the idea of group content anywhere outside an instance. It’s a good change. These quests could be fun, but finding a group could also be an aggravating roadblock. Their removal streamlines the leveling process nicely. You still take on some impressive and powerful opponents, but you usually have NPC backup or some other quest specific way of evening the odds.

Blizzard's sense of humor can be found everywhere.

The new zones are well worth the price of admission. They are huge, and full of cool features. The underwater Vashj’ir zone is so big it’s practically an expansion all on its own, and the sea life and underwater vistas look amazing. There’s always some cool to see, and while there are plenty of bread and butter kill-this-fetch-that quests, there are also plenty of memorable moments and fun new mechanics. Questing through these new areas never felt grindy or boring to me.

That's a Whale, to give you a sense of scale. You actually go inside the creature behind it.

Before I let you go, I realize this blog has been a little WoW heavy lately. For this you may, unsurprisingly, blame the expansion. While Wow coverage and commentary is certainly intended to be an element of this blog, with “Azeroth” right there in the name, please don’t come away with the impression that we’re only a WoW blog. As riveting as I find making my Internet Numbers bigger, in my experience there are few things less interesting than hearing someone talk about an MMO you do not play.

If you also play the same MMO, given what we’ve discussed today, I suspect our experiences in the new zones would be, by their very design, quite similar. So you probably wouldn’t find it very interesting either. In fact, you’re probably busy playing right now rather than reading this carefully crafted and insightful masterpiece. Ingrate.

To the pit with you!

But fear not, gentle reader. We have more of the same thoughtful reviews and fascinating industry commentary you’ve come to depend on coming down the pipe quite soon. A man has to do something besides play WoW. Until the brain electrodes get installed, I mean…

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