BlizzCon 2015: World of Warcraft: Legion


BlizzCon is always more exciting, for me at least, on odd numbered years, and the reason is obvious enough: it is when Blizzard have historically announced the next expansion in the World of Warcraft franchise. Not so in 2015. With a great deal of “huh?” and “did something important happen a few weeks ago?”, Warcraft gamers have been slowly coming to learn of Legion, which was announced at a convention in Germany back in August.

A bit anti-climatic to say the least, the announcement might have come early to fit the company’s time table; unlike previous expansions, Legion will be released in the middle of the year instead of at the end. I thought that Blizzard would at least, well, pretend like Legion was a secret during the opening ceremonies–they did as much years ago when they “revealed” Starcraft II after announcing it previously in Korea. So I decided to remain blissfully ignorant of World of Warcraft: Legion and wait for the meat and potatoes showcase. It didn’t quite pan out as I expected. This is the trailer they presented:

I enjoyed it. Watching Sylvanas duke it out with the demon got me fairly excited. But if this was all you had to go on, you would have approximately zero idea what Legion was about save exactly what its name implies: The Burning Legion. In that sense, the opening ceremony to BlizzCon 2015 was rather disappointing. I was expecting a broad four minute cinematic showcase of the new world that Legion would open up. Instead I got a narrow four minute cinematic showcase of Varian and Sylvanas fighting demons. Meh. Cool video; not what I was hoping for though.

But thankfully there was a World and Content Overview. (And a Q&A panel later tonight.) So here is the rundown on everything Blizzard revealed about Legion:

PLOT

Where Warlords of Draenor left off, Gul’dan had opened a portal for the Burning Legion to invade alternate-reality Draenor and the horde and alliance had stopped it, but Gul’dan escaped. In Legion, he arrives in main-timeline Azeroth and heads to the Broken Isles–a remnant of ancient Suramar which holds the tomb of Sargeras–under orders from Kil’jaeden. (Sargeras is basically the highest-tier bad guy in WoW lore–a titan who turned evil and commanded the Burning Legion. Basically, Kil’jaeden’s boss.) A portal is opened, the invasion begins, and here we are. Oh, and Illidan Stormrage is back, because why not?

It’s pretty straight-forward stuff, and for as cataclysmic as a Burning Legion invasion might be, this one is apparently isolated to the new continent. (Don’t expect anything like the terrain-changing rampage that Deathwing went on at the launch of Cataclysm.)

Illidan’s role is going to pick up from Black Temple. Blizzard are retconning the invasion of the Black Temple in Burning Crusade to say that Illidan opened a portal to a demon prison world (Mardum) and sent the future-Demon Hunter class elves on through. Inside, they infuse themselves with fel energy in a way that does not bend their will towards the Legion. (In practice it’s something akin to Death Knights–a horde/alliance aligned variant of a traditionally evil class–and they’ll begin at level 98.) The Demon Hunters return to the Black Temple just in time to be defeated by the horde/alliance and imprisoned by Maiev. Their plot line resumes in the present, where they break out of the Vault of the Wardens and choose their factions.

That was all Blizzard had to say about the main plot overview. But when they got into discussing different zones, things got interesting. Apparently, Legion is going to double up as the Emerald Dream expansion. (I’m kind of torn on that because I always hoped it would be its own independent expac.) Basically, the Emerald Dream is an alternate dimension containing the blueprints of Azeroth as it was first formed. It’s where druids derive their power, and Ysera and the green dragonflight existed to protect it. For about as long as WoW has existed, it’s been plagued by a mysterious corruption, and in Legion we finally get to engage that head on.

A third plot device that’s coming into play here is the Vrykul. Apparently a large contingent of their people came to the Lost Isles prior to the events of Wrath of the Lich King, and their lore will be explored and fleshed out in the zone known as Stormheim. From the sounds of things, Blizzard intend to push the story pretty far via quests and dungeons, possibly diminishing expansion-tier lore into a single zone. I started worrying about this at first. I began to wonder if this was going to be a slap-together “various plotlines we didn’t think we could base a whole expansion on” expansion. But when they started showing the artwork for it all, I got over myself pretty quickly. They didn’t slap a random winter zone into the middle of the continent or anything cheesy like that. The art looked really tasteful and appropriate for this expansion’s overall flavor without breaking from Vrykul standards. Hey, if the vikings could settle south in Europe they can do it in Azeroth too. (I guess we don’t technically know where in Azeroth the Lost Isles will be yet.)

LEVELING EXPERIENCE

Legion will begin with a 40-player scenario sequence (I cringed at the thought of how queues for this might work months after the launch when most players have already done it) where the alliance and horde invade the Broken Isles and establish their footholds. Blizzard showed a video of it. It looked, well, pretty damn awesome.

From there, I’m a little bit suspect of the way things will go down. There are four main questing zones surrounding the max level destination of Suramar: Azsuna, Val’sharah, Highmountain, and Stormheim:

The problem is, you don’t explore them in a set order. Blizzard got it in their heads to use the scaling technology we saw a lot of in Warlords and make all mobs scale as you level, so you can choose which order you tackle the zones in. It sounds like an absolutely terrible idea to me. First of all, so much for going back and finishing the story lines in lower level zones once you’re strong enough to speed through filler “kill 15 of x” quests. They’re now guaranteed to be a tedious waste of time no matter what your level is. Yay!

And this is going to be an absolute nightmare for pvp servers. Seriously. At least before, players 10 levels above you had to go out of their way to find you and pick a fight instead of taking on players their own size. Now a level 100 and a level 109 will routinely find themselves doing the same leveling quest. It doesn’t stop at that, either. It was later mentioned that, thanks to scaling, areas can function as both leveling zones and end-game questing areas. Uh, thanks Blizzard. There’s nothing this dwarf loves more than competing to complete a quest at level 100 against three full-conquest geared horde at level 110.

END-GAME QUESTING

Like it or not, daily quests are coming back with a vengeance. I absolutely loved command table missions in Warlords of Draenor, because you were pretty free to do whatever you wanted within the mission area and gain credit towards the same objective. Legion‘s variation didn’t sound particularly bad though. Instead of picking up dailies from a central hub, there will be daily quest regions with objectives listed on your map–presumably dozens of them–and you can pick from a huge variety throughout the continent to do whatever you’re in the mood for on a given day. Blizzard described their intention as to “overwhelm you with options”. And I like that. Part of what made Warlords of Draenor the most fun thing Blizzard has created in a long time was this sense that you never had to do the same content twice or run out of activities. I get the impression that in Legion they are taking that idea and pushing it even further.

The more significant rewards of dailies won’t be “daily” in the traditional sense, either. They will be something more like “complete six of the dozens of daily quests in a given zone this week.” So you should never feel obligated to actually play every day in order to keep up with the content. As someone who likes to be geared for raiding early in an expansion but can’t be on every day, I really like that.

RAIDS AND DUNGEONS

Blizzard announced two raids for Legion. The first is The Emerald Nightmare, which I’m really looking forward to because the Emerald Dream is an obscure bit of WoW lore that’s intrigued me for years. We’re finally getting to see it out. The Emerald Nightmare will contain 7 bosses and open a few weeks after launch, similar to Highmaul.

Inside you’ll fight, among other things, Xavius, corrupted members of the green dragonflight, and–I thought this was pretty awesome–the one and only Cenarius, fully corrupted by the Nightmare’s blight.

I’m pretty stoked. This is the raid I’ve been waiting for for a long, long time (still wish it was a full expansion), and I don’t think Blizzard are going to disappoint. The brief video they showed of the place looked amazing.

The second raid is going to be Suramar Palace. This one will be central to the expansion’s main plot, with Gul’dan as the final boss. It contains 10 bosses, and its design is pretty unique from the sounds of it. Set in the highest palace of the Nightborn Elves’ capital, it’s going to be a bright and elaborate palace, not a dark grimy catacomb. (At least, as they described it. No preview was shown.)

Additionally, Blizzard is pushing to make dungeons central to Legion–or so they say–but I’m not sure that it’s going to have a real impact. I think most of us were quite relieved to discover that dungeons were one and done in Warlords of Draenor. It made them unique and enjoyable rather than mindnumbingly repetitious grinds. Blizzard are putting a lot of effort into redesigning dungeon scaling and reward systems for challenge mode, but it frankly sounded like an excessively complicated waste of time that no one is going to bother playing anyway. (Honestly, how many people do you know who do challenge modes? Out of a maxed out realid list of 100 people I can think of approximately zero.) But if that’s your gig, it sounds like there will be additional tiers of difficulty which incorporate additional mechanics.

The only thing that worried me is I got the impression dungeons might scale up to your current gear even if you don’t want them to. I’m really hoping this isn’t the case–especially with scaling coming into play in the world zones as well. It rather defeats the purpose of seeking better gear if it never makes you any stronger…

ODDS AND ENDS

There is something that might be a new major city but probably isn’t: Suramar. Elves created a barrier to protect the ancient capital of Suramar during The Sundering 10,000 years ago, and they have been living behind it ever since, unaware that the War of the Ancients was ever won. The city was described as “one of the most ambitious projects that this team has ever done”. Blizzard explained that the leader of the city turned over to the Burning Legion, and one speaker let it slip–seemingly by accident–that Dalaran will be moving to the Lost Isles from Northrend, so I doubt there will be a traditional hub here. “The Grand Palace of Suramar” is a raid, and the city features two dungeons. Yet Blizzard mention “aiding your allies in Suramar”. I’m not sure what to make of that, and wonder if the city will be divided into a “safe-zone” hub and the occupied districts. Is Suramar City a city or just a questing zone like Shattrath in Warlords of Draenor, but with a raid and dungeons stuck in the middle? Hard to say.

One thing Blizzard definitely confirmed is that we will be able to see it. Visibility distance will be increased to three times its current level. That might honestly be the most exciting announcement about the whole expac for me, and a pretty cool reason to go re-explore the world.

There will be moose, games where you roll around in a barrel, and male banshees (manshees). All of these points received special attention because 😕 why shouldn’t they?

Blizzard made no mention of whether or not there would be level 110 flying. I think no flying had a tremendously positive impact on Warlords of Draenor. It felt like the largest expansion in the game by far–a place you could get lost in like nothing since Vanilla WoW. But the decision saw its fair share of opposition, so it’s hard to say whether they’ll repeat the process in Lost Isles.

World of Warcraft: Legion is due out in mid-2016. It looks pretty good, and has manshees.

October Music Series: Jason Hayes – Darkmoon Faire Merry-Go-Round


One of the first novelties to really captivate me in World of Warcraft was holiday events. WoW was the first game I ever played that really felt like a full-blown world and not just a collection of zones. (At least, it did back before Blizzard effectively shrunk everything with portals and fast travel.) Holidays added a further immersive element–a sense that this world actually experienced the passage of time. While that aspect was left by the wayside as the game expanded, it had a powerful effect on me back in 2005. Playing the game for me then didn’t mean statistics-grinding–being the first on my server to down a boss or accomplish an ‘achievement’–it just meant checking out of real life for a few hours and immersing myself in this fantasy environment. You could start a new character on Halloween, set off on the long hike to a major city, and there you’d find the whole place decked out in pumpkins and ghouls with themed mini-games and the like. Come back at Christmas, and the world will have aged again. I loved it.

The Darkmoon Faire is an event unique to Azeroth. Originally a traveling carnival that you might happen upon by chance, it eventually set up permanent shop with easy access to the major cities, but the settlement maintained its air of mystery. In practice, the Darkmoon Faire Merry-Go-Round is a necessary stop for anyone interested in speed-leveling a new character due to the beneficial enchantment that visitors receive, but its music leaves you wondering if you didn’t just lose your soul in exchange…

This Jason Hayes composition was not actually introduced to the game until late 2012, in the Landfall patch for Mists of Pandaria, but it could easily find a home in the game’s annual Halloween event.

NMY vs The World Video Game Hall of Fame Class of 2015


The Strong, an educational institution in Rochester specializing in the study of games, announced the six inaugural inductees of their World Video Game Hall of Fame yesterday. So what? Well, it made its way onto a lot of major news sites, which means it is probably going to resurface again next year and, in time, become the closest we’ve got to an “official” Hall of Fame.

My gut reaction was “my what a pretentious title”, because the “World” VG HoF looks incredibly U.S.-centric. Their game history timeline pretty much completely ignores the fact that the U.S. did not control the international gaming market for the vast majority of the 20th century. I mean, this timeline is crazy. 1982, the year that the bloody Commodore 64 was released, they feature Chicago-based Midway’s Tron instead. 1986, the year that Dragon Quest set the standard for the next two decades of role-playing games, they are at such a loss to find anything novel that they dig up Reader Rabbit by Boston-based developers The Learning Company. In spite of devoting 1992 to Las Vegas-based Westwood Studios’ Dune II, LA-based Blizzard Entertainment steals 1994 with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Does the invention of RTS gaming really deserve two years? Well, it’s not like it was competing with the release of the Sony Playstation or anything. Oh that’s alright, we’ll feature it in 1995, since that’s when it came to America. This list also devotes 1993 to the development of the ESRB rating system (which only applies in America), 1996 to Lara Croft’s tits (seriously, does anyone actually give a shit about Tomb Raider?), and 2002 to the U.S. Army, because uh, freedom!

So yeah, World Video Game Hall of Fame my ass. But that doesn’t mean they got the first six wrong:

Pong (1972)

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have been hand selected to choose the five games which will accompany Pong into the Hall of Fame.” It had to go something like that. Pong invented gaming like Al Gore invented the internet. Could you imagine a Hall of Fame without Pong? I mean, it’s Pong! Really though, wasn’t computer gaming kind of inevitable? Was it the first game? Nope. Did it stand the test of time? Not really. Did it usher in the age of arcade gaming? I guess it did, but the game itself had little to do with that. It was a novelty. Replace it with anything else, and that other game would be just as famous, regardless of its content. I don’t like that. There is a reason why Pong is the only game of the six Hall of Famers that I never played as a kid or else upon release, and that has nothing to do with my age. I think we get hung up on its simplicity, its catchy name, this idea that it all began with two paddles and a ball, and the desire to point to something and say “this started it all”. Pong deserves recognition in any gaming hall of fame eventually, but top 6? We can do better.

NMY gives this selection a 5/10

Pac-Man (1980)

What are Pac-Man‘s claims to fame? Well, it was the first video game to be a major social phenomenon, generating a huge market for spin-offs, toys, animated cartoons, and all sorts of other consumer products. It was the first video game with a really memorable theme song. It remains the best-selling arcade game of all time. It generated a chart-topping shitty pop song. It even destroyed the gaming industry. (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has absolutely nothing on the devastating consequences of Pac-Man‘s abysmal Atari port.) And sure, it’s pretty boring, but it still lasted well into the 90s. I had a pirated DOS copy as a kid. Do you think anyone bothered to pirate Pong? Uh, no.

NMY gives this selection a 10/10

Tetris (1984)

Tetris is a game that we all agree to love because it is Russian, and like Russia, it is really evil and kind of a dick. Four Z blocks in a row? Really? I didn’t double tap that button. Go back! Ugh…. Tetris annoyed the hell out of me as a kid, but I certainly did play it. It also spawned a ton of cheap rip-offs, novel improvements, and largely unrelated block puzzle games that stole its name for publicity, and a lot of these vastly outclassed the original. If I look back on all the fun I had playing Tetris Attack for the Super Nintendo, or hosting TetriNET tournaments online in the late 90s, or the amount of time my wife wastes on Candy Crush Saga, it is hard for me to pretend that Tetris was not significant. It was the mother of all “endless puzzle” games, and it deserves credit for that, even if I hated the original Alexey Pajitnov Tetris, with its never-ending tiers of frustration.

NMY gives this selection a 9/10

Super Mario Bros (1985)

This is the real shoe-in. Nintendo was able to turn Mario into (I am assuming) the most recognizable fictional character in the world because the original Super Mario Bros was so great. A game released in 1985 is not supposed to still be this much fun 30 years later, but from novel settings and mechanics to outstanding control, this game ran the gamut of what a great side-scroller was supposed to be. This, at a time when there was very little in the way of quality competition to take inspiration from. The game’s lasting legacy is so pervasive in our culture that I would feel silly even bothering to summarize it.

NMY gives this selection a 10/10

Doom (1993)

“Why an FPS, World Video Game Hall of Fame?” Because “it also pioneered key aspects of game design and distribution that have become industry standards“, according to the official induction explanation. Design-wise, they laud it for “a game ‘engine’ that separated the game’s basic functions from other aspects such as artwork.” That might be an interesting point. I don’t know much about it, though I have to imagine that anything Doom did, Wolfenstein 3D did first. Distribution-wise, they talk about how id Software marketed downloadable expansions and encouraged multi-player, online gaming. That point fails to impress me. Doom launched in 1993, which means no games before it really had the option to market themselves in this way. “First” only counts for me if the move is innovative, not inevitable. So we are left with some sort of novel modular processing system and the fact that it was the first really successful FPS. Those are fine points. I might not like FPS games, but I can’t deny that they have had a more lasting impact than say, fighting or sports games. Placing so much weight on the play style does, however, open up the doors for a lot of why nots. Why not Diablo? Why not Dragon Quest? Why not Command & Conquer?

NMY gives this selection a 7/10

World of Warcraft (2004)

I am not entirely sure why the World Video Game Hall of Fame chose World of Warcraft, because they aren’t telling. Their write-up goes into detail on what makes MMORPGs so revolutionary, but none of it is really unique to WoW. They throw out some numbers about WoW’s player base and monthly profit, and then bam, inaugural hall of fame induction. I am probably the last person to give an accurate assessment of how World of Warcraft changed gaming, because I still actively play it, but I have to believe that its enormous popularity had a lot to do with its place in time. Coming in to the 21st century, we all knew someone who played EverQuest, and we all (all of us, right guys?) secretly wanted to abandon our real lives and nerd out in 24/7 multiplayer fantasy immersion. I never played EverQuest, however, or Final Fantasy XI for that matter, because I still had dial-up internet. World of Warcraft launched right around the time that the majority of gamers were becoming equipped to play something of its magnitude. That being said, WoW is going on 11 years now, and still going strong. I’ve never seriously considered canceling my subscription. Blizzard landed on a market ripe for the picking, but they have carefully cultivated it ever since.

NMY gives this selection an 8/10

Over all, I think the World Video Game Hall of Fame is off to a good start. Pong is the only inaugural entry I strongly disagree with, but were it missing, would people still take the organization seriously? Doom is a bit sketchy to me, because its only claim seems to be “first popular FPS”. I think GoldenEye 007 was the game to push FPS into the mainstream and really reach beyond the genre, while Blizzard clearly dominated online gaming with Diablo and Starcraft, whatever id Software happened to do “first”. Doom is a good candidate, no doubt, but I feel like it belongs in another class. It would have fit in more nicely in a 2016 school that pushed genre-standardizing games like Dragon Quest, The Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter II, and Space Invaders.

Is that what we have to look forward to in 2016? Well, based on the runners-up from 2015, maybe not. The list did include Space Invaders and The Legend of Zelda, along with worthy contenders Pokémon Red and Blue and The Oregon Trail. Beyond that, it got a bit dicey. It is hard to imagine that Angry Birds, for instance, almost made the top 6. Sonic the Hedgehog would be long forgotten if not marketed as Sega’s response to Mario, yet it was a contender. FIFA International Soccer was the only sports entry–an odd choice, given that I have never heard of it, it only came out in 1993, and Tecmo Super Bowl exists. The other options were Minecraft–a bit young yet, don’t you think?–and oddly, The Sims, which I am sure was quite fun to play and left no lasting impact on gaming whatsoever. Well, they’ve got another year to straighten things out.

BlizzCon 2014: Rumors and Speculations


Well, we are now only a day away from Blizzard Entertainment’s eighth BlizzCon convention, and as has become a sort of tradition here, I will aim to bring you as much coverage as I can while I watch the live stream. I’d like to get a bit of a head start this year by setting the rumor mill in motion.

The biggest question on everyone’s mind will inevitably be: what is Blizzard’s big opening surprise announcement? BlizzCon has traditionally been the company’s favorite venue to open the lid on secret projects and plans. The first BlizzCon introduced us to The Burning Crusade. In 2007 we learned of Wrath of the Lich King. 2008 gave us our first in-depth look at Starcraft II and Diablo III. 2009 brought Cataclysm, 2011 ushered in Mists of Pandaria, and 2013 introduced us to Warlords of Draenor. But 2010 was a bit of an anomaly. In 2010, we got nothing, and it’s probably no surprise that I remember that year the least of the four I followed.

Even numbers are off years for Blizzard. There was no BlizzCon 2012 for a reason; they had nothing substantial to announce. So where do we stand in 2014? It is too early to announce World of Warcraft 7. Diablo 3‘s Reaper of Souls expansion is less than a year old, and we’ve known about StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void forever now. There is Hearthstone. But as fun as it may be, it’s just a card game. So you might be thinking Heroes of the Storm, Warcraft: The Movie, or Project Titan.

Titan would be the best guess, as Blizzard’s biggest, most ambitious upcoming project. Except Blizzard canceled Titan in September. Yes, after seven years of development, Project Titan went the way of Starcraft: Ghost. This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, either. Blizzard had been “reevaluating” the project for a year, aka deciding if they should can it, so it’s not as if this was going to be the big BlizzCon announcement and they had to change their plans at the last minute.

Hmm… A repeat of 2010 then? Maybe. Probably? If Blizzard have a truly new game in store for us this year, it’s going to catch everyone off guard. Blizzard trademarked the title Overwatch earlier this year, and that has gained a lot of attention for lack of anything more concrete to speculate over. Overwatch could just as easily be the next Hearthstone expansion though, following Curse of Naxxramas. I think we can safely assume Blizzard will pump one of those out a year as long as people are willing to keep buying them.

So what will the big opening showcase definitely not be? I remember hearing a rumor years ago that after WoW 5, which would be Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard were going to shrink their expansions from two years down to one. That’s stupid. I’ll believe it when I see it, and I’ll still think it’s stupid. There will be no World of Warcraft 7 announcement at this BlizzCon. It’s also not likely to be Warcraft: The Movie or Heroes of the Storm. How do I know? Because there are introduction and overview slots scheduled for both of these projects immediately following the opening mystery segment.

But wait, Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 are going to have “What’s Next?” segments on the panel stage after the opening. So that leaves ???. Maybe, just maybe, Blizzard have a really big announcement in store. But they have scheduled events in such a way that it appears to rule out all six of their currently known major projects. Blizzard take years upon years to develop new games. That is why we knew about Starcraft: Ghost for an eternity. That is why we knew about Project Titan for an eternity. That is why the Starcraft II announcements were really just icing on a cake we had long known was in the oven. Blizzard is a company with Duke Nukem Forever syndrome, not an organization that spits out new titles out of the blue in a year’s time. Whatever the gaping two hour gap between BlizzCon 2014’s Opening Ceremony and its first presentations and panels will be, I predict that it will be anticlimactic.

Still, why the secrets? If the space is just going to be filled by a general overview of everything Blizzard, surely they would tell us. They wouldn’t get our hopes up for nothing, would they?

Well, I have one idea. StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. The one hour “What’s next?” panel certainly suggests that we won’t already know what’s next, but that could be misleading by intent. Wings of Liberty was released in July 2010. Heart of the Swarm came out in March 2013. At that pace, Legacy of the Void is due around November 2015, conveniently coincident with BlizzCon 2015 (where World of Warcraft 7 will be the obvious big deal). If Blizzard don’t want Legacy of the Void to go up in a puff of smoke, November 7, 2014, is the day to hype the shit out of it. They surely aren’t going to give it a measly one hour discussion on a side stage. Sure, it’s going to be more like Diablo III: Reaper of Souls than a big freakin’ deal, but Starcraft 2 needs more publicity. The Diablo series is now intimately tied with Warcraft. Every WoW subscriber owns the original D3, because you got a whopping year-long subscription free for buying it, and it only came out two and a half years ago. Starcraft 2 has been around for four and a half now, and let’s face it, the solo campaign for Heart of the Swarm was a boring letdown compared to Wings of Liberty. The game lacks casual players like me because it requires constant practice to maintain skill, so it competes with WoW for Blizzard fans’ time in a way that Diablo 3 doesn’t. It’s by far Blizzard’s best franchise, never mind that I’m a WoW junkie, and it’s been slowly isolating itself to Koreans and hardcore aficionados. My realid list is always capped at 100 players, and it’s totally normal for me to catch a WoW gamer playing Diablo or Hearthstone. Starcraft just never happens. It should, because it’s better than all those other games, but it doesn’t.

So what do you do at BlizzCon 2014? Hype the hell out of Legacy of the Void and announce a streamlined, highly publicized and consistently broadcasted esports league that brings the top tier of Korean competition to the front page of my Battle.net app every weekend. If I could watch Day[9] broadcast a Jaedong vs. Life zerg throwdown at the click of a button in my Battle.net interface, without having to dive into a foreign corner of the internet to find it, bye-bye raiding. And don’t worry Blizzard, I’ll still subscribe to do mindless fishing and archeology while I watch. The tail end of the SC2 WCS Global Finals is getting exclusive coverage with no overlap from other events on Saturday, so I’m pretty excited about that. And Day[9] is one of the tournament’s broadcasters. His commentary is always epic. I don’t know if that’s a sign of anything. Maybe it’s just a distant hope.

But are there any other options? Heroes of the Storm, Blizzard’s DotA-style free-to-play project, is getting one more hour of show time than any other project, and the official BlizzCon 2014 site background suggests it:

Kerrigan as a human, Arthas as a Death Knight, and a Diablo III Warlock all engaged in combat? That sounds like Heroes of the Storm to me. But then, if that’s the game they’re openly making a big deal about, it’s not going to be the secret surprise, is it? Well, I’ll break down the announced non-competition content and you be the judge:

World of Warcraft: 4 hours total
1 hour WoD changes overview
1 hour Content Q&A
1 hour Cinematics panel
1 hour Documentary

Warcraft: The Movie: 1 hour presentation

Diablo III: 2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.

Hearthstone: 2 hours total
1 hour “What’s next?” panel
1 hour Arena guide and strategy Q&A

Starcraft II: 4 hours total
2 hours total in two separate “What’s next?”-type panels.
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information

Heroes of the Storm: 5 hours total
1 hour “Overview”
2 hour “exhibition” on a side stage, no further information
1 hour audio panel
1 hour character and team-building guide

*mysterious* Unannounced Content: 3 hours total
2 hours of empty space to follow the opening ceremony
1 hour of empty space on the main stage Saturday, 11:30 to 12:30.

Review: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft


Like most of my b.net friends (that is: auction house junkies and achievement whores), I downloaded Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft for a free mount. What I got was an addicting breath of fresh air laced with all the appeal of nostalgia. In Blizzard Entertainment I’ve trusted since I first picked up my copy of Starcraft back in 1998, but it would be hard to argue that the company has not grown a little washed out of late. Starcraft 2, for all its glory, faces too much competition to match the popularity of its legendary predecessor; Diablo 3 was a bore to all but the most devoted series fans; and World of Warcraft is gagging on the fumes that keep it running. I thought BlizzCon 2013 was the nail in the coffin (and I still do), but Hearthstone definitely breaks from the current trend. It is the first Blizzard release since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) that felt fresh to me.

Hearthstone is an electronic card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Unlike M:tG, you’re not going to find yourself at a loss for players when your friends grow up and get “lives”. (sigh…) I’m sure plenty of online M:tG-style card games have existed in the past, but what’s significant here is that I have never played them. Hearthstone had a few things going for it pre-launch that genre competitors lack: it is free, it is Blizzard, and its launch coupled with a long over-due Battle.net meta program that makes it highly visible to current Blizzard customers. The minute you click play, you’ll find a few other perks. Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is nothing short of brilliant, the game is conceptually very simple to grasp, and the graphics strike that balance between clarity and imagination that is non-existent in modern gaming. (If you don’t know what I mean by this, consider a modern game with severely limited character development–say Mists of Pandaria–to an old-school NPC overload like Suikoden, and ask yourself which game you remember more characters in.)

Once you’ve been at it a while–I’ve been playing for all three weeks the game has been public–some obvious cons will emerge. The game is highly dependent on card acquisition, and the availability of new decks is unnecessarily limited. Playing strictly for free, a casual Hearthstone fan will accumulate roughly two card packs every three days. A pack consists of five cards, with at least one guaranteed to be rare or higher (rarities roughly parallel WoW’s system of common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary). Because the game is new, the total amount of cards out there is relatively low, leaving little room for creative builds that can succeed in the absence of numerous epics and legendaries. Unfortunately, Blizzard offers no easy progress through pay. Booster packs (5 cards) can be purchased at a rate of 2 for $3, 7 for $10, 15 for $20, and 40 for $50. At the outset, nothing short of the all-in $50 deal is going to guarantee you much of an upper hand, and by the time you’ve accumulated 20 or so free decks through casual play the $20 and lower options seem like too much of a gamble. So if you want to roll your way up into the higher ranks, you’re stuck paying the full retail price of a major release or else sticking it out for free over an extended period of time. There is no financial happy medium. You will likely find yourself wavering between ranks 17 and 19 for a long, long time until you’ve gotten lucky enough to build a competitive deck. I would happily pay $20 for 40 booster packs at least once, but $50 is unreasonable.

Blizzard does not currently allow cards to be traded or sold, and that makes some practical sense. (I would just roll fake accounts and trade free boosters to my main until I had the full collection in a matter of days.) What they offer instead is a “disenchant” feature, where you can permanently destroy cards and use the byproducts to craft others of your choosing. The problem with this system is that it leaves collectors in the dust early on. Until you’ve accumulated enough duplicates, you’ll be faced with the unpleasant choice between remaining in the lower ranks and abandoning rare cards.

On the plus side, extensive losing streaks are pretty uncommon. The game seems to be very well balanced to match you against players of similar skill/decks. Skill development will cap out before deck improvement, unfortunately, but the monotony can be broken by a system that allows you to play 9 different classes loosely based around their World of Warcraft parallels. My Warlock deck might cap out at rank 17, but I haven’t even touched a Druid yet. Boosters are not class-specific, so what I earn on an alt class is of equal worth to me. Whether alternate class play too will dull before higher-level decks can be built is still too soon to tell. I can say that three weeks into the public launch, Hearthstone is still sufficiently captivating to chew up an hour of my evening daily.

I love this game not only for its innate appeal, but for its status as proof that Blizzard can break from their self-imposed molds and release a game that is not dependent on a franchise model. My dreams of a World of Starcraft are still far-fetched, but I really, really hope that Hearthstone succeeds. It serves as a reminder that, before Blizzard found themselves inextricably bound to decade-old gameplay models, they were the most innovative corporation in the world of PC gaming.

Did I mention that Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is godly? Russell Bower might be at the peek of his career with Mists of Pandaria, but this is what I want to hear in a game. Two thumbs up for Hearthstone all around.

Shad#1129 on battle.net if you want to hit me up for a round or two. 🙂

BlizzCon 2013: World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor


After a one year hiatus, BlizzCon is back. As I watched the opening ceremonies and subsequent World of Warcraft panel yesterday, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to another RPG powerhouse all but forgotten in the western world today: Squaresoft. The series of marketing failures that sent Square spiraling towards bankruptcy in the early 2000s felt eerily close at hand as Blizzard Entertainment unrolled one new project announcement after another yesterday in Anaheim.

Square’s troubles from a western perspective began in 1999. They had, prior to that year, released a handful of non-RPG titles in North America–I remember purchasing shmup Einhänder and enjoying Kenichiro Fukui’s soundtrack if nothing else–but these were Easter eggs not marketed to Square’s traditional fan base. In 1999, Square ported and pushed Ehrgeiz. It was a fighting game marketed specifically for RPG fans, incorporating popular Square franchise characters such as Sephiroth and Cloud Strife, and it was the first Square release in North America that I knew about and did not buy. I thought the game was a really cool idea at the time, but that didn’t change my fundamental disinterest in fighting games.

Next came Final Fantasy VIII. The game was definitely a short term marketing success, but it divided Square’s fan base unlike ever before, because it focused on aspects of the game that fans were traditionally disinterested in. It was the first Final Fantasy title to feature really impressive graphics, it introduced a highly developed card-based mini-game, it reenvisioned a lot of elements of the battle system, and it replaced a traditionally heroic cast with none-too-glamorous introverts. These features drew an audience, but they dulled the interest of loyal series fans who loved the epic tragedies and encompassing global struggle-styled plots of games gone by.

Last came The Spirits Within. Square decided to release a movie geared towards their newer fan base. They had no experience in this field, their diehard fans had already lost interest, and their new fans had no loyalty to the company. It flopped, really badly, and whatever the financial statements of Square Enix say, they never fully recovered their foothold in the western market. They found themselves desperately grasping to reel in a fan base that was too broad to take interest in any single product, until they ultimately faded into obscurity in every market. This can be seen in the fact that most Final Fantasy IX fans disliked Final Fantasy X and vice versa.

I say all of this because it is painfully relevant today. Here are two obvious reasons:

BLIZZARD ANNOUNCED A FIGHTING GAME

This isn’t nearly as misguided as Ehrgeiz. As I understand it, Heroes of the Storm will be styled after DotA, not traditional fighters. (The BlizzCon feed for HotS is hopelessly lagging on me, so I can’t confirm much.) But the idea of duking it out with your favorite characters from Blizzard’s three major franchises is only going to succeed if the gameplay drastically outclasses other games of its genre. They aren’t going to draw fans by letting you play as Kerrigan or Thrall, because most Blizzard loyalists are not convinced by the company’s character development. I would also argue that, following the massive hype and disappointment of Diablo III, Blizzard fans aren’t going to be very compelled by a new title beyond their franchises of choice that is not a wholesale break from what we’re used to. Heroes of the Storm will be free, and that is a huge plus, but it is going to have to be really freakin good to make it off the ground. As was the case with Square’s Ehrgeiz, the franchise card isn’t going to hold much weight in this field of play.

BLIZZARD ANNOUNCED A MOVIE

Yes, Warcraft: The Movie is under production. More will be revealed about this project at 1pm PST Saturday on the Main Stage, but absolutely nothing good can possibly come of it. Like The Spirits Within for Final Fantasy, it will only interest a small portion of the Warcraft fan base and hardly anyone beyond. Blizzard has never been a promising plot engine, and their cinematics are hopelessly cliche. It’s not like there’s any precedent for failure along the console to cinema highway, but I give Blizzard’s shot at turning a profit here about one in zero.

WARLORDS OF DRAENOR OVERVIEW

Now, I’ve claimed that Blizzard does not keep fans based on plot and character development. Am I right? Well, I’ve certainly known WoW players who cared about the plot, but they form a minority in my experience. That’s not to say that I or any other WoW fan would not love to see a really awesome plot. It’s to say we won’t get one. This is something Blizzard is particularly bad at, and it’s not the reason we play their games. That is one of the reasons World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor concerns me. The hour and a half of feature coverage yesterday focused heavily on the game’s plot and characters. Blizzard staff went on at length about the progression forward from Mists of Pandaria and the various NPCs you will encounter. In a comically self-defeating slide, they summed it up like this:

That’s all the more a Blizzard plot has ever really amounted to, and it’s why no one cares. Looking beyond the attempted plot hype, what else does Warlords of Draenor have to offer?

SETTING

WoW 6.0 will take place in Outlands, utilizing another weak time-travel plot device to set the zone prior to its cataclysmic restructuring as experienced in The Burning Crusade. Shattrath will now be an independent Draenei city, and the alliance and horde will have their capitals in Shadowmoon Valley and western Blade’s Edge Mountains respectively. These will be known as Karabor for alliance and Bladspire Citadel for horde, and the Blade’s Edge Mountains themselves will not yet exist as such. Their memorable spikey peaks having formed during Draenor’s later destruction, they will be separated into a western, mountainous winter zone (Frostfire Ridge) and an eastern desert (Gorgrond). Shadowmoon Valley will here be a lush land of forests and meadows, not a desolate fel-ridden waste, and Karabor will be the site of what later becomes Black Temple. There will be seven zones in all: Nagrand, Shadowmoon Valley, Tanaan Jungle (Hellfire Penninsula), Talador (Terokkar Forest), Frostfire Ridge (western Blade’s Edge), Gorgrond (eastern Blade’s Edge), and a new zone–Spires of Arak. None of these seem, in my opinion, to offer much of a unique flavor. That is somewhat inevitable, since Outlands is not an unfamiliar world.

The world will loosely resemble Outlands, and like most WoW continents, it will form an image when viewed as a whole:

GARRISONS

Garrisons were described at BlizzCon as “the [Valley of the Four Winds] farm times one thousand“. A garrison is a full town which you can build inside any zone within Draenor, and which you can move from one location to the next. Like the farm, a garrison will involve setting actions into motion which will occur over night (anywhere from a few hours to a full week), but the payout will be much higher. You’ll gain NPC followers who quest and raid for you to bring home epic gear, you’ll be able to tap into other professions beyond your main ones, you can pick and choose what buildings are constructed (armory, stables, etc), and you’ll be able to customize the garrison’s appearance any way you like as it grows. You can even hang a boss’s head from your front gates!

Sounds pretty cool, right? I think it’s riddled with problems. First of all, Blizzard reps claim: “This isn’t a cottage in a far away instance corner that doesn’t actually exist in the world. This is your ability to actually build a base almost as you do in the RTS games, in the actual world, that you’ll be able to see as you fly through the zones. You’ll be able to see it as you go by it. You’ll be able to invite your friends to come and see it if you want to.”

That is horribly misleading. Under the current developmental scheme, your garrison will exist for you and you alone. It’s true, like they said, that it will be smack in the middle of any map you care to put it in, and that it will be visible from afar, but it will be entirely isolated from all other players. It is a solitary bastion in an MMO world. No one will be able to see it (unless you invite them, presumably to role play); no one will be able to attack it; no one will ever know it exists. As such, it’s not much different from the average farming game on your cellphone. The only real reward is the production payout, whatever that may be. Let’s look at a few:

You can choose which buildings to include.

Ok, but what are buildings good for? An inn and stables aside, all buildings in WoW are used almost exclusively for profession and class trainers. But at level 100 you won’t need a class trainer, and Mists of Pandaria drastically nerfed the amount of time and energy necessary to max out a profession, so much so that grinds which once took a month or upwards of 100k gold can now be accomplished in an evening for petty change. (I think that was an awesome improvement in MoP. Don’t get me wrong.) Unless Blizzard invent new uses for these buildings, they will have none. Or if they add such features as transmog, upgrading, and reforging, then Karabor and Bladespire Citadel will be ghost towns. The screen shot Blizzard offered showed the blacksmith being used to learn new patterns. If that’s anything like the daily leatherworking and tailoring pattern rewards in MoP, it will be pretty useless.

It allows access to mats/It farms for you while you’re offline.

What does it farm? Blizzard have still yet to introduce any sort of access to solid gear outside of raiding or valor/conquest points. If this gear isn’t up to par, it will be a waste of time. Does it farm mats? If it’s anything like the Valley of the Four Winds farm in MoP, this will be a completely useless feature unless the mats are BoP. There is a reason you only farm Motes of Harmony in MoP: non-binding general profession mats always have and always will be the domain of bot farmers. You might not like them, but your auction house could not exist without them. They are what make ore and herbs affordable on your server, and the farm system alternative to gathering in MoP has never paid out in time spent to profit earned.

It gives you access to professions you don’t have.

MoP’s profession grind nerf still necessitates six toons at 85 to max everything out, so this could definitely come in handy, but at what cost? The more Blizzard takes away from the auction house, the more inflation will rise.

You can win trophies, and hang your enemies heads upon pikes at the castle wall! Yarrrgh!

The first note I jotted down while watching this BlizzCon session was “wtf is the point of building a castle in an mmo that is not mmo?” That pretty well sums it up. The whole purpose of a trophy case is to brag to other people about your accomplishments.

The bottom line is this: Blizzard couldn’t have given every player in the game a Garrison that existed out there in the real, massive multiplayer world, because it would have been a spam-ridden nightmare. But they could have given one to say, every level 25 guild with at least 20 exclusive active accounts, and they could have taken this in all sorts of promising directions, ranging from pvp sieges to player-made home cities instead of another Shattrath or Dalaran. But they didn’t. Instead, we all get a bigger farm.

GRAPHICS

This is actually pretty sweet. Blizzard is making a massive graphic overhaul to all races in the game, and will now offer visuals competitive with new MMOs on the market.

BOOST TO 90

In an attempt to lure back old players, Blizzard if giving every account a free boost to level 90 for one toon at any level. This is a pretty nice deal, but it could have some unintended consequences. I for one will be employing it as that long-awaited character transfer I was always unwilling to pay money for. By-by dying low population server, hello Sargeras, Kil’jaeden, or Kel’Thuzad. Expect this feature to increase urban migration and server balance polarization.

CROSS-SERVER ITEMS

Blizzard is increasing the types of items that will be available cross-server. In addition to mounts and battle pets, you will now be able to access BoA leveling gear heirlooms on any toon, anywhere. It’s about damn time, I think. They are also making tabards and toys account wide, which is just silly.

DUNGEONS & RAIDS

Warlords of Draenor will launch with 7 dungeons and 2 raids containing a total of 16 raid bosses. Only 4 of the 7 dungeons will be available below level 100, for maximum alt leveling boredom. Upper Blackrock Spire (UBRS) is getting a remake, and the level 100-only dungeons will have non-heroic versions in order to “help players prepare for heroic mode”. … Since no one would voluntarily run non-heroic dungeons at level cap, I interpret this to mean “expect more tedious grinding before you are eligible for real gear.” The reason behind this move is incomprehensible, as no one who is unready for heroic dungeons for reasons other than gear is any less unready for regular dungeons. They are called “noobs”, or “nubs” in some dialects, they are typically too disinterested in the finer details of the game to ever figure it out, and they will be carried by my epic hunter deeps. NEED that agi ring my DK friend! It will definitely help boost you over 10k dps!

Raids are getting a fourth tier. There will now be LFR, Normal, Heroic, and Mythic. LFR through Heroic will all be available under the relatively new and quite successful flex raiding system, and Mythic will be 20-man only. While this all sounds like a fine idea to me, the Blizzard reps did show once again how out of tune they were with the game they developed when they explained flex’s utility: We’ve all been in that annoying situation where a few dps or a healer bail in LFR right before a boss pull and we have to reenter queue and wait, they said. Flex will scale the LFR boss down so we can pull anyway!

Well, no, we haven’t. In fact, that never, ever, ever happens. DPS and healers are replaced in LFR in a matter of seconds. There is a 60 minute long queue line of them ffs. Long waits before boss pulls happen because TANKS leave, and you can’t rescale for that.

PVP

Blizzard is bringing back a world pvp zone, and it’s going to be a 24/7 battle rather than a timed instance. They compared it to classic Alterac Valley, and I’m pretty stoked about that. Unfortunately but necessarily, this is going to be a cross-server zone. That means that you’ll never form a collaborative relationship with your team mates, probably, but with a ton of servers reaching 90:10 faction polarization these days, I for one see no viable alternative.

In the world of arena, Blizzard is creating a separate ladder system called Trial of Gladiators. These ladder fights will only be available at certain dates and times, and they, rather than regular arena queues, will determine season champions. This was supposedly developed to eliminate late-night pairing exploitation, which I wholly intended to get in on to knock out some of my arena achievements, but I’m all for it. One really cool thing is that they’re eliminating gear for the event. You will be given the same premade gear set when you roll in, regardless of your ilevel or resilience, so victory will depend entirely on skill and class balance.

ODDS AND ENDS

Blizzard focused on a number of additional changes that Warlords of Draenor will offer, and most of them are complete rubbish that ought to just be quietly implemented on the next routine patch update.

* Battleground progression information — Blizzard are basically integrating PVP DBM into the game proper. But I’ve got an addon for that.

* Random favorite mount summoning — This will be an option. But I’ve got an addon for that.

* Enhanced bag sorting options — You will now be able to control which bags particular types of loot fall into. But I’ve got an addon for that.

* Battleground scores — You will now be able to see a conglomerate score of your performance in a battleground, incorporating traditional stats such as hks and damage done along with your involvement in objection completions. I am not very confident about Blizzard’s capacity to rate my performance, especially considering there are multiple strategies for winning just about any bg. This is also potentially really dangerous, because they suggested that there might be rewards for high scores. Does this mean that, even if you already have the Cap Five X achievement in a bg, you’re still encouraged to spam the hell out of the flag instead of fighting around it for a shot at the prize?

* Quest items will no longer be stored in bags — Yay!

* You can craft with items in your bank, not just your bag — Yay!

* Item stack caps raised from 20 to 100 — Yay!

But I fear that the few positive changes here and there aren’t going to make a difference in the big picture. Blizzard announced WoW 6 this BlizzCon, as expected, but they had very little to show for it. Plot and characters aren’t what keep us playing this particular game, the Garrison system is a single player entity isolated within an MMO world, and almost every other new thing they emphasized was astoundingly petty. There will be modest improvements here and there–to bag space, to raiding opportunities, to free server migration–but in previous expansions these would be afterthoughts. A lot of interface changes amount to nothing more than addon incorporation, but the players who don’t use say, a battleground objective addon, are probably oblivious to battleground objectives in the first place. The most depressing announcement towards this end was the ADVENTURE GUIDE. This is a menu like the Dungeon Guide, but designed for inexperienced players who don’t have a clue what’s going on. It will tell you what zone you ought to be questing in, where you can go for better gear (a dungeon. a raid. mmhmm…), what battlegrounds are available at your level, and so on. Did it ever cross Blizzard’s mind that the people who can’t figure out the dungeon finder or pvp menus aren’t going to figure out the adventure guide either? Obviously not, because the emphasis once again seems to be “hand more fine details to the players who don’t care and won’t read them.” I’m not trying to insult anybody here. My wife’s been happily bouncing around Eastern Kingdoms leveling gnome locks to 40 for a year now. There are players who want to “win” to the capacity that WoW allows, and there are players who just enjoy a little pew pew before they go to bed and have zero interest in learning more. Last I visited Blasted Lands, there was not a sea of confused level 60s unable to figure out how to walk into the Outlands portal. So just who do Blizzard think they’re helping with these improvements?

Has Blizzard lost touch with their fan base? Mists of Pandaria does not lead me to believe so, but the showcase for Warlords of Draenor looks bleak. With little more than a dime-a-dozen farming mini-game and new zones, dungeons, and raids to offer, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking forward to here. I don’t need a new class or a new race to keep me entertained–I’ll be a dwarf hunter until the day I quit–but I need something. Whatever that thing will be, it wasn’t revealed at BlizzCon.

But enough being a Negative Nancy. I’m off to watch Jaedong whoop ass in the Starcraft II World Championship Series Finals. For the swarm!

Review: Blizzard Entertainment – Mists of Pandaria


I had pretty mixed expectations for the soundtrack to Mists of Pandaria. One the one hand, Blizzard’s scores embarked on a downward spiral starting in 2010. Cataclysm was a poorly planned expansion, and its lack of a clear focus and theme had a serious impact on the music. Russell Brower, Derek Duke, and Glenn Stafford did an outstanding job on Wrath of the Lich King in 2008, but the Cataclysm sound team faced a weak, haphazard plot and (I would imagine) a great deal of frustration as Blizzard scrapped some of their major plans for the expansion mid-stride. Diablo 3 was equally disappointing, with the inexcusable failure to bring back Matt Uelmen taking its toll. I was beginning to think Blizzard had abandoned any serious commitment to ensuring high quality music in their games.

On the other hand, there was no doubt as to what Mists of Pandaria would be about. Just as Wrath of the Lich King had a clearly Nordic vibe from start to finish, Pandaria was thoroughly immersed in Eastern culture and tradition, with a wealth of pre-existing musical themes upon which to build a score. It also brought video game music legend Jeremy Soule into the mix; but considering Cataclysm fell flat in spite of involving David Arkenstone, I wasn’t going to get too excited about this one until I heard it.

As it turns out, Mists of Pandaria might be Blizzard’s best soundtrack to date. Russell Brower, Neal Acree, Sam Cardon, Edo Guidotti, and Jeremy Soule clearly did their research, and the expansion presents a delicious mix of authentic Chinese folk and big-ticket film/game scoring. I am ill-equipped to compare it to similar contemporary soundtracks–I don’t watch movies, and I really haven’t kept up with game soundtracks for the better part of a decade now–but as an avid World of Warcraft fan who plays with the sound on, I can safely say that the music this go around is a fundamental, essential element of the gameplay. This really hasn’t been the case since Wrath of the Lich King. Hour of Twilight (Dragon Soul) had one of the most unconvincing scores in Blizzard’s catalog, for a patch that felt rushed and entirely uninspired. It was a force-fed collection of dramatic stereotypes, and it’s hard to imagine what else it really could have been in the context of the raid. Mists of Pandaria, in contrast, is packed with lively anthems that bring the action to life on a level to par with the mechanical and visual appeal.

My favorite track so far is the music to the Shado-Pan Monastery dungeon. It’s a dungeon that, I think, would hedge on the side of tedious were it not for the score. The Master Snowdrift boss battle begins with a semi-choreographed fight against Pandarian monks who take turns jumping into a ring to engage you. I don’t know if the music is intentionally timed to cue with the fight or if it has just happened that way the two or three times I’ve played through it, but the heavy drumming that starts about 2 minutes into this clip seems to sync up with the start of combat. Playing the game in silence, you might find yourself impatiently waiting for the new challengers to engage you, yawning and tapping your foot to press through and collect 80 valor points. With the music on, it’s one of the most engaging experiences of the expansion: the sweeping anthem gives the fight a cinematic feel, and it’s easy to forget that you’re actively playing a game, not watching a movie. It was on my first play through Shado-Pan Monastery that what Russell Brower and co accomplished in this expansion really hit home. In Wrath of the Lich King, it was the slower-paced themes like Grizzly Hills and Dalaran that moved me the most, capturing the timeless, snow-covered landscapes and subduing the combat experience. In Mists of Pandaria they certainly still achieve top quality questing zone ambiance, but for the first time in a Blizzard game I am also hearing songs that suitably enhance the action.

That, at least, stands for the casual encounters. I have yet to really pay attention to the music while raiding. In a sense, the raids demand the best tunes Blizzard’s sound team have to offer, but they are also the part of gameplay in which you are most focused on what you’re doing and least inclined to sit back and take in the audiovisual experience. What I can certainly say is that for the first time in a while I feel inspired to at least make an effort to pay attention to that experience. For now, I’d like to call further attention to the more ambient, questing zone tracks. The degree to which they managed to incorporate traditional Chinese instrumentation into the score is admirable, and to the best of my knowledge none of the musicians accredited with the Mists of Pandaria soundtrack specialize in Chinese traditional music. The score is certainly of a western film style at heart, and you would never mistake their Eastern fusion for authentic Chinese folk, but such inclusions as a pipa at the outset of “The River” are delicious indulgences that enhance the gameplay experience far beyond what was necessary for the composers to earn their paychecks. Mists of Pandaria is just packed with little Easter eggs that show how much fun Blizzard must have had making this game. (I love how two early, relatively insignificant NPCs you encounter in Jade Forest are named Ren and Lina Whitepaw, as in Ren and Li–Humaneness and Ritual–two of the principles of Confucianism.) Mist of Pandaria’s music offers the same tip of the hat to those of us casually informed on Chinese tradition, and I get a constant thrill in recognizing moments that resemble my beloved eight-volume Chinese Ancient Music Series collection.

Bravo to Blizzard for doing this one right through and through. It’s no masterpiece independent of the video game for which it was composed–I wouldn’t sit around listening to it while not playing the game as I would for say, a Nobuo Uematsu score–but it is an essential component of Mists of Pandaria in a way that the music of Cataclysm never was. Mists of Pandaria is one of the most visually stunning games Blizzard has yet produced, and it’s got a soundtrack to match. I wouldn’t necessarily say I like it more than Wrath of the Lich King, but it achieves the same level of quality while set to a drastically different theme and landscape.

BlizzCon 2011: Mists of Pandaria Overview Part 2


I left off yesterday having discussed Blizzard’s initial overview of the Pandaria zone, the race of Pandaren, and the new Monk class. As with any expansion, World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria will feature much more than simply new quest and raiding content, however. Here is a look at some of the major additions and changes:

Talents 2.0

First of all, the talent system is getting a major overhaul, far beyond the changes it received in past expansions. There will now be only six talent points. That’s it. Blizzard made a big to do about Cataclysm’s failure to revamp talent builds, resulting in only 1-5 realistic choices out of 41 (the rest being pretty much mandatory for any given spec.) The idea in MoP will be to do away with every mandatory talent and instead create a system which should cater to a variety of playing styles without drastically influencing your dps. Or as I understand it, if you use them correctly every possible talent combination should peak for about the same overall benefit.

If that seems like high expectations, note that there will only be six talent points per class, not per spec. Your options will be the same whether you’re healing, tanking, dpsing, pvping, or whatever. Here’s a look at the tentative paladin talent screen:

If you are hoping to load up on all of the healing talents, think again. Your six points are not to be spent as you please, but can only be used once per row. If you get Blessed Life, Sacred Shield and Ardent Defender are gone, no getting around it. Don’t expect to waste thousands of gold checking them all out though. Talents will now function like glyphs, and rather than having to start from scratch you will be able to reset any particular row at any point in time outside of combat. Blizzard suggested this would be necessary for raiding, certain talents being more beneficial for certain bosses, so expect opportunities to put them all to a bit of use. As for those “ability” talents necessary for your spec, they will now just be given outright like other abilities.

Scenarios

Scenarios seem to me the most dubious of the new additions. They will be very short queuable events designed to replace the group quests of old, and they will not have any specific role requirements, so queues will be instant. They will be available at various levels, each should have a level 90 version rewarding a few valor points, and you will be able to queue for them while in dungeon queue. So far so good–it sounds like a pretty nice way to collect extra valor while waiting for those tedious 40 minute queues to pop. Here is a basic example of what the objectives of a Scenario might look like:

But aside from the fact that something that short could get really old really fast, here is the major drawback: Blizzard described a number of them as “pve battlegrounds.” What does this mean? Well, WoW Game Director Tom Chilton was fairly explicit in talking about them as battleground for people afraid to pvp. Does that mean they’ll reward honor? Does that mean the more sheepish players who don’t know what they’re doing–the ones I love graveyard camping oh so very much–will be able to get geared through these? Or even if they don’t, will this actually succeed in keeping bad players out of real battlegrounds? That, to me at least, would be a terrible disappointment.

But it gets worse. I first started to think Blizzard hated pvp servers when they updated village guards to prevent camping. My glorious days of sitting outside Grom’gol Base Camp picking off lowbie horde like flies are dead and gone; may they rest in peace. Scenarios seem to be further pushing towards refusing to reward dedicated pvpers for getting gear. The biggest catch though, really the biggest disappointment in all of Mists of Pandaria, I might as well throw at you now:

Resilience will be a base stat.

No, really. If you stand outside of your enemy faction’s city naked, you will have resilience. Oh, there will still be pvp gear, giving you more resilience, but I’m going to propose right now it will be useless. Right now going up against a raider in world pvp, my 4500 resilience means I win. And it should, because I joined a pvp server to pvp, and the guy I am fighting apparently didn’t. Narrow the gap to say, a 1000 resilience difference, and do you really think my measly Ruthless set is going to hold up against a full Firelands-equipped player?

As a hunter, I am well familiar with the lack of balance in WoW pvp. I win 1 on 1 because I am geared to the hilt. You take that away from me, and I’m just a fish out of water, dying to anyone who actively plays the game whether they care about pvp or not. Part of the idea is to make it so that players can jump into arena sooner–to prevent a block from progression. But isn’t honor already dirt cheap? Doesn’t it only take what, a week, to get fully geared for arena? Maybe it makes no difference, if you play on a pve server, but for me all this is doing is ruining world pvp–my favorite aspect of the game. Low blow Blizzard.

People have been complaining about how it’s too easy to get geared for raiding for ages now. I guess the idea with Scenarios and an overwhelming nerf to resilience is to give us pvpers something to gripe about too. Anyway, enough of that, let’s look at a more positive addition:

World of Pokemon

Lord only knows what has compelled me to so desperately seek out that 150 vanity pet achievement (I’m sitting around 135 at the moment), because I don’t even like the damn things. But it’s all going to pay off now in an addition sure to be both cheesy and addicting: vanity pet arena (I believe Pet Battle System is the official working title). You will now be able to level your pets (up to 25), form teams of between 1 and I believe 3 pets, and square off in turn-based battles both against other collectors and against new world pets that you can catch and add to your collection by defeating.

It’s looking to be a pretty complex process. You can visit trainers all over Azeroth to learn new abilities for your pets, you can trade them, you can auction them at high level, and they will be shared across your account. Imagine a pimped out White Kitten selling for 20k. I will be that man robbing you.

Without going into too much detail, pet stats will be randomly generated, so you might have to catch one multiple times to get the build you want. Pets will be seasonal, so certain ones might only appear in the summer or winter, and some will only appear in the day, at night, in the rain, in the night in rain in September, you get the idea. It’s going to be a whole game within a game, and it might sound silly right now, but I suspect this will soon stand alongside raiding and pvp as a third way to play World of Warcraft.

Other Features

* Dungeons will have a third form: “Challenge Mode”. They will consist of time trial runs in scaled-down gear, so they will never get easier as you gear up. There will be Bronze, Silver, and Gold times to beat, with different gear rewards (including statsless transmogrification sets) depending on your time. There will also be an in-game stats keeper showing your best time for each dungeon compared to other players on your server. I’m not sure how to take this. I play on one of the lowest population servers in Warcraft; we are pvp, and everyone knows everyone, so the competition to be on top is personal. I could see myself getting a bit obsessed over this one.

* Raids will also have a third form: Raid Finder. Breathe a sigh of relief; DF Raiding will be a tier below regular raiding. You won’t be able to just pug your way into a cross-server 25 man heroic run. It’s more a means to learn the mechanics while getting geared for normal raids, and I’m pretty excited about it. On servers like mine where low population means frequently bringing along one to two inexperienced players for progression attempts, there will be no more excuses. If you haven’t downed the boss through Dungeon Finder 10-man, you aren’t coming. I like it.

* There will be 9 new dungeons: six completely new ones, a heroic version of Scholomance, and a heroic version of Scarlet Monastery condensed into two dungeons. There will be three launch-ready raids, similar to Cataclysm.

* Blizzard failed miserably in Cataclysm by creating a lot of compelling world raid bosses and giving none of them any gear worth a damn. MoP is supposed to reintroduce world raiding proper. You can look for me ganking your healer half way through the fight.

* Expect 2-3 new battlegrounds, tentatively titled Stranglethorn Diamond Mines, Valley of Power, and Azshara Crater. If Twin Peaks and Battle for Gilneas were my two biggest disappointments in Cataclysm, these look to compensate thoroughly. Stranglethorn Diamond Mines is going to consist of transporting resources out of a mine down a whole mess of different passageways–the first team to successfully transfer the required amount wins. That means a lot of hiding, sneaking around, scouting ahead, and outsmarting rather than overpowering. It seems perhaps too complex to be 10 on 10, but I’m going to be disappointed if it isn’t, because it sounds perfect for rateds. Valley of Power is much more simplistic–a small square room with few opportunities to evade combat. Yet Blizzard managed to make it refreshingly unique. There will be an orb in the center of the room which any one player can hold, and so long as a faction is holding it they gain points, scaled to go up faster the closer you are to the center of the map (and thus to your enemies). But I don’t expect this to be a 2 minute fight followed by a 10 minute wait like Battle for Gilneas. There is an additional mechanic: whoever holds the orb will take periodic damage increasing over time. If there are no healers, it will eventually drop even if your team never touches the carrier. As for the third proposed battleground, Azshara Crater, Blizzard has said nothing.

* There will be a new arena: Tol’vir Proving Grounds. It looks identical to Nagrand Arena except the four pillars are diamonds rather than squares. Really? For as long as we’ve been waiting, it looks downright pathetic.

* There will be valor from daily quests. Thank god. Daily quests will also give you buffs that allow you to gain extra loot in dungeons. I’m not quite sure what to make of that.

* Many achievements will be account bound. They did not go into too many specifics on this, but I’m pretty damn excited. Achievements are my gig in WoW, even more so than pvp. I’m pushing 11,000 without hardly any from raids, and if this means I can roll a level 29 twink hunter and knock out all of the more insane pvp ones I’m going to be in the money. Not all achievements will be account bound however, and whether that means obvious ones like say, the level 90 achievement, won’t be, or if not all raid/pvp accomplishments will be either, is still up in the air. There will also be multi-toon achievements, like maxing out every profession.

* A few major class/stat changes were mentioned. The epic resilience nerf stands out as the worst, and maybe the worst idea Blizzard have for all of MoP. They will also be doing away with the range weapon slot. Relics will be gone, rogues and warriors will throw their main hand, and hunter bows/guns will become the main hand. Wait, how will hunters survive without a melee weapon? Ah, the most relevant buff of all for me: hunter minimum range is gone. Gone! No more frost mages locking me in place and taking me down without ever so much as taking damage. Hunters will finally be a viable dueling and 2s pvp class. Warlocks will also get a major overhaul to better distinguish the three specs, and the way they described Destruction I suspect they’re going to be pretty op, with a stacking damage buff that hopefully resembles Arcane Blast. Hopefully because I have an idle 85 warlock, that is. Shamans will no longer have buff totems, and lastly, druids will finally be recognized as officially having four specs.

There was one major question left in my mind when all was said and done. I play on one server exclusively. There are ten classes and ten toon slots, so I am full. As it stands, I will never actually get to play a monk. Will that change? Will they finally add an eleventh slot? WoW lead producer J. Allen Brack was asked this in the post-presentation interview, and his answer wasn’t promising: They’ve thought about it, but they’re not quite sure.

BlizzCon 2011: Mists of Pandaria Overview Part 1


If you look at the main stage schedule for BlizzCon 2011, attention to World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria isn’t so much dominant as nearly exclusive, getting six and a half hours of discussion and demonstration, compared to two for Diablo 3 and not a minute for Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. With that in mind, I imagine everything presented in the initial general overview of Mists of Pandaria will be granted much more thorough detail down the road. But, if you’ll allow me to take this one step at a time, here are the key points I took out of the overview.

The first thing you’re going to encounter in WoW 5 is the level grind from 85 to 90, so let’s take a look at that first.

The first thing you might notice is that Pandaria looks pretty small. It’s only five zones, for one thing (ignore the blob on the right for the moment), and I certainly would hope at least one of them, probably the middle, is a world battleground akin to Wintergrasp and Tol Barad. Blizzard did not actually make any mention of server battlegrounds in the introduction, and cryptically listed and dually ignored a third “Azshara Crater” battleground when detailing MoP’s two normal bgs, so perhaps this is not the case, but at any rate, Cataclysm’s five questing zones and one pvp zone felt small to me, and here only five are listed in total.

But there are a number of features to take into consideration. This scale compares Pandaria’s five zones on the left to Twilight Highlands on the right. Twilight might not seem that big, dashing around with master riding skill and the like, but if you expand your in-game map you’re going to realize Pandaria is well over half the size of Eastern Kingdoms. And there is a further catch: You can’t fly there until level 90.

This comment met with a great deal of applause from the audience, and I will gladly join them. Aside from my great distaste for the revamped lower level zones of Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor, what really made Cataclysm feel so weak quest-wise for me was level 60 flying. No more pick up, fly, kill something, fly, turn in, repeat here. No more complete disregard for terrain, either. Can you imagine hopping on a ground mount and waltzing the whole way across Twilight Highlands five times? Pandaria will feel huge.

Yet there are still only five zones. I loved the diversity of having ten in Wrath of the Lich King, but with only a 5 levels I suppose their options here are a bit more limited. They do try to account for this though, giving at least the second leveling zone, Valley of the Four Winds (bottom zone on the map), two distinct quest lines that will make leveling at least your first alt a more unique experience. In this case there will be both a northern “farmlands” region and a southern “coastal jungle” region, both of which should cover about the same level/exp range independently.

There was not much more information on particular zones available at this point, but names always indicate something. Here is what I know of the map breakdown:

The Jade Forest (level 85 starting zone, to the east)
Valley of the Four Winds (second zone, to the south)
Vale of Eternal Blossoms (central zone)
Townlong Steppes (western zone)
Kun-Lai Summit (northern zone)

As you may have guessed from the preview video I posted earlier, they will all have an Asian flavor about them. Another cool feature, for me at least, is that Blizzard will try to make the dungeons more visible. Valley of the Four Winds’ dungeon, Stormstout Brewery, should be visible to scale within the zone proper, not simply as a portal (though I’m sure you still have to “zone in”), and WoW Lead Content Designer Cory Stockton’s comments lead me to believe the others will generally follow suit. Whether this will amount to something new or will merely reflect a continued effort similar to Lost City of Tol’vir in Uldum remains to be seen, but it was certainly emphasized in the overview.

There will be one final zone of course: the Pandaren starting zone. Worgen and goblin starting zones were something of a complete joke in Cataclysm, in so far as they were completely irrelevant to the game if you weren’t the relevant class. Already having ten toons on my server, I have not caught the slightest glimpse of either. I get the bad feeling the Pandaren starting zone will be equally disappointing, but in the meantime it at least looks pretty cool.

This zone, The Wandering Isle, is a giant turtle. No, really. There will be a giant turtle floating around off the coast of Pandaland with a whole mess of forests and mountains and civilizations thriving on its posterior. The reason I suspect it will be as inaccessible to those of us with 10 toons as the worgen and goblin zones?: Pandaren start off neutral.

As in, they start off neither alliance nor horde. You don’t actually choose your faction until level 10, and that answers another question: MoP will introduce only one race, available to either faction. I’m pretty confident Blizzard will keep them isolated with this in mind, because I could see an unwelcome (on their part–harmless and entertaining on mine) cross-faction black market emerging otherwise.

This starting zone is actually playable at BlizzCon, so expect most of the non-official images of MoP appearing over the next few weeks to be of The Wandering Isle.

While I am on the subject of Pandaren, here’s the information you’re probably most interested in in a nutshell:

Pandaren classes:
Hunter
Mage
Monk
Priest
Rogue
Shaman
Warrior

Tentative Pandaren Racials:
Epicurean – Increase stat benefits from food by 100%
Gourmand – Cooking skill increased by 15
Inner Peace – Your Rested experience bonus lasts twice as long
Bouncy – You take 50% less falling damage
Quaking Palm – You touch a secret pressure point on an enemy target, putting it to sleep for 3 sec.

Monks are the next order of business. Allow me to start with a video of one in action:

Did that leg spin look cool at the end? WoW Lead Systems Designer Greg Street quoted one of his colleagues as saying “If we don’t do gnome monks, monks aren’t worth doing.” Yes, gnome monks will be an option, kicking in the faces of all enemies willing to get within half an inch of them. … Actually, the class will be available to every single race except worgen and goblins.

As for what exactly a monk consists of, at face value they pan out to be much like druids without a Boomkin option–leather wearers with the following specs:

Brewmaster – Tank
Mistweaver – Healer
Windwalker – Melee DPS

But as far as how they function, I am a bit confused. Street described them using a combination of energy (chi) and a dual point system:

Monks will use two basic abilities, “Jab” and “Roll”, to build up Light Force and Dark Force, with which they can release higher abilities. Ok, ok, fair enough for tanks and dps. But what about healers? Nothing was said directly, but monks were described as “melee healers” and compared to disc priests for their ability to dish out some dps in the process. Does that mean we’re going to have a healing spec without mana? I am lead to believe so. Will this be raid-functional or strictly pvp? That question remains unanswered.

Well, it’s getting late here, and I didn’t get as far in my BlizzCon coverage as I’d hoped, but I’ll try to pick up where I’ve left off tomorrow. So far I’ve only scratched the surface.