Now that I’ve hit level 85 with my Feral/Resto Tauren Druid and had a bit to think about it, I wanted to share some thoughts on the newest expansion. The short of it is that if Cataclysm is the direction Blizzard wants to take their open world content, I am not interested. Now, before I get into that I’ll quickly discuss what’s good: The PvP additions, the new instanced dungeons, and the changes to the existing old world content are all well made and great improvements. I very much enjoyed Azshara, and thought it was as good as any existing zone in the game. But, as soon as I bought the expansion proper and dropped into Hyjal, things went south quickly.
Remember, “Polished” is a relative term
Actually when I dropped into Mount Hyjal for the first time I and hundreds of other players were immediately slaughtered by “friendly” NPC guards (this got fixed a few days ago apparently). You’d think this kind of bug would get fixed in the months long beta, but oh well, things happen. But throughout the rest of the open world content I ran into constant game breaking issues. The end of the Troll starting area left me in perpetual in-combat until I restarted. The story event at the end of Vash’jr broke on me 3 times in a row, leading me to kill the executable after getting stuck in a cutscene for 20 minutes. When I first entered Uldum I ended up in a broken phase where I couldn’t get out of the small cage it spawned me in until another reset. An Uldum turret mission took me half an hour because 90% of the enemies were moving but invincible. At least 4 separate times I ran into issues where enemies I was fighting would randomly despawn (not even evade, actually disappear) right before the end of boss fights.
I didn’t play Burning Crusade or Lich King right at launch, but playing vanilla WoW at launch I never ran into so many quest progression issues (stability is way better now though). All of the failures I ran into seem to share the same base cause: complicated single player scripting that interacts poorly with the actually massive number of people in the world. After the success of Lich King’s content (nearly everyone seemed to enjoy phasing and vehicle missions), Blizzard has pushed their design farther in a direction their engine cannot handle. There are now a ton of in-engine cut scenes that tell the story, but their quality is often abysmal. Awkward voice work, camera angles that constantly lead me to be staring 90 degrees to the right of the subjects, jerky animation, and an excess of shots of characters slowly walking made me want to skip all of them. But, I stopped trying after half of them prevented me from skipping and 1 of them actually dropped me to login after I skipped it. I’m the kind of player who doesn’t love cut scenes in narrative action-adventure games, but if you constantly take control away from me to show me poorly edited machinima that could easily exist in the game world, I’m not going to play your game.
The Rollercoaster of Warcraft
It isn’t just the cut scenes that take away player control, the plot of the expansion is constantly trying to making you feel small and useless. After helping defeat the scourge of Arthas, jumping into the defense of Hyjal felt satisfying as the zone made you feel important. Deepholm continues the same theme, as you literally save the earth. But when you enter Vashj’ir you almost immediately get kidnapped by completely normal Naga. It vaguely makes sense because you’re in their domain, but it still feels a bit silly for one of the heroes of northrend to be overpowered by a single humanoid. Then, the first thing that happens when you get to Uldum is… you get kidnapped by a small group of stereotypical pygmies and thrown into a tiny cage. Before you end your questing you’ll get abducted AGAIN by inconsequential minions. I’m sure this was meant to make things feel “dramatic”, but it just made me feel like my character was useless as I rode the Rollercoaster of Warcraft.
It isn’t just the story progression that took away my feeling of control, it was the game mechanics. The changes to talent trees were great for balance purposes, but did remove the feeling of being able to choose your own path as you had to stay within the constricted path chosen for you. The biggest change is in quest structure, as there are now far fewer quests available at any given point. The game leads you from quest hub to quest hub in a very precise manner, and if one quest is broken due to bugs you will be unable to progress any further because all the quests are in very long chains. When I got to a quest hub in vanilla wow and got received 6 quests spread across a geographic area, I got to plan my approach and have the satisfaction of doing it efficiently or not. In Catacylsm when I get to a quest hub I get 2-3 quests which are geographically on top of each other and nearly impossible to do in isolation. The confusing part is that because an 80+ character is guaranteed to have a flying mount, they could easily space these out a bit better to make the world feel more alive without killing efficiency. As it is, you’re lead by the nose throughout Catacylsm, with the only choice being which of 2 linear paths to progress down first. Oh, and all these linear chains mean that 99% of quests in Catacylsm are not shareable so group questing is both less efficient and less fun than going it alone.
Massively no More
Blizzard appears to have completely given up on the idea of open world content that is designed for a Massive number of players. In addition to the constant bugs and lack of mission sharing, anything that isn’t easily soloable has been removed entirely. But, the mob and quest mechanics have not adjusted to the fact that everyone is now soloing. The vast majority of quest objective spawns do not share credit if two groups/players simultaneously engage them. A smattering of them do correctly handle split credit but it’s completely random and not tied to any visual or text feedback as far as I can tell (I thought it might be tied to rather an enemy HP bar turns gray when tagged, but this seems to be unrelated). Half of the time quest objectives would quickly respawn when farmed and half of the time it would take 10 minutes. Sometimes the players would informally group up to help share quest credit and half the time someone would gank an enemy despite you clearly being in the front of the line. The only time I died while questing in Catacylsm was when the accelerated spawn timers from farmed enemies would cause them to respawn before they hit the ground. Other than that, the only challenge in questing Catacylsm was in developing a comprehensive spawn camping strategy and stopping myself from raging at kill stealers who are supposed to be my allies.
There are exactly 2 open world experiences that are designed for a “massive” world, and neither of them work. The Crucible of Carnage in Twilight Highlands is the now-traditional forced group quest where you fight dungeon-boss-quality enemies in a full group. But, it’s even more broken than ever. For the experience to work correctly there has to be EXACTLY 5 people who want to perform the quest at any given point. If there are less you will fail because the enemies are difficult. If there is more than one full group the quest breaks as two group compete to start fights, gank spawns, and generally screw with each other. Oh, and sometimes the enemy fears you, you run out of the arbitrary quest area, and fail a quest 4 times in a row. Finally, Tol Barad is the Wintergrasp replacement that aims to provide large scale objective PvP. But, in it’s current form it’s completely unbalanced as the attackers have a nearly impossible task while the defenders can basically not move the entire game and automatically win. Tol Barad may get better, but in it’s current form it’s much less fun and rewarding than the instanced battlegrounds.
Fun to visit, wouldn’t want to live there
What does today’s World of Warcraft gain from being a massively multiplayer game? The open world content is trying to be a linear action-adventure rollercoaster without the satisfying gameplay or high polish and production values required to make that work. The end games of PvP and dungeon instance running are almost entirely run through matchmaking services or via explicit guild activities. Oh, and if I want to play with a friend of mine from work I have to spend 100 hours leveling a character to max or pay $30 and abandon my existing friends to set up a server transfer. 18 months ago I said no MMORPG would ever beat WoW, but it looks like World of Warcraft is on it’s way to killing the genre itself, by abandoning it.