Since the Shattering, the Lollipop Guild has been busy. They have apparently meandered all over Azeroth building a Yellow Brick Road, a Golden Path Theme Park for Idiots, turning World of Warcraft into a game only brain dead vegetables can love.
OK, OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole. There are reasonable concerns about pacing in the game, especially dungeon XP gain rate as Klepsacovic noted, which Blizzard fixed. Pete of Dragonchasers also notes that a player control for turning XP gain off might be nice. I agree, though I’d also like the ability to remove XP, so I could iteratively reduce my level and keep pushing myself as I solo dungeons. Well, that, or have nice, tight difficulty control sliders, or even difficulty settings like DDO has for dungeons. (I can sort of fudge this by removing gear and taking skills of my action bar, though, so it’s not a thought I expect to be taken seriously.)
I broke down and bought TBC and Wrath while Blizzard had them on sale for $5 and $10, respectively (having purchased the original game for $5 last year). I used a gift card I got a while ago and fired up another month in the game to look around. I played the possibly overscripted Troll starting areas and found them to be a nice slice of mechanics that show up later in the game as well as a nice bit of Troll species storytelling. The Gnome staring zone is pretty good, and I love that they are fighting for their home instead of waiting for players to run the Gnomeregan instance. The Tauren starting zone is great, imparting a sense of impending twilight for the species. Even the Dwarf starting experience is fun and fresh, though I’ve played the old version many times.
One commonality is the NPCs milling about, caught in perpetual warfare. Yeah, they never get very far in actually defeating their foes, but at least something is going on in that vast plain by the Tauren starting village. I wrote about the Death Knight starting areas a while back, and it seems to me that Blizzard has learned that having NPCs doing things in the world helps give it a sense of life. In the DK areas, battles are going on in the background as you do your quests. All new areas I’ve played to date have either battles or NPCs training for battle. Questgivers and trainers move around a bit sometimes and interact with other NPCs. The game feels more alive and bustling than ever before, and it does that without a player in sight. That’s a Good Thing.
When there are players, yes, a game will feel more populated, but at the same time, players rarely feel like part of the world. They run and jump around like caffeinated squirrels (do players ever walk?), loiter around like heroes without a cause, dress like fashion accidents, and run through each other. And those are the tolerable ones; some are flat out annoying, spamming chat channels, dueling, monkeying around with train sets, dancing naked on mailboxes or any of a number of other random nutty non-Azerothian behavior. In a lot of ways, player characters kill the much-vaunted “immersion” that can be produced by a cohesive presentation that we see in strongly themed and behaviorally consistent NPCs.
The starting questlines are indeed streamlined and polished to a fine golden sheen. You’re almost never left wondering what to do, as NPCs go out of their way to advertise their inability to do simple things on their own, requiring errand boys and assassins at alarming rates. (Though, since death is almost always only temporary in Azeroth, maybe assassination isn’t so much a nasty profession as a hobby.) The rails in the game are indeed more finely crafted and more prominent than ever before.
And yet… there is nothing keeping players on the rails but their own habit and Pavlovian training. I can take a new Troll and wander over to the starting Orc area to begin my journey. I can just go grind away and kill crabs and boars, totally ignoring any quests. I can try to swim around to Tanaris and see the new Thousand Needles water park. As a Dwarf or Gnome, I can hike to Ironforge and catch the tram to Stormwind and hop on a ship to Northrend to look around, all at level 1 (though I might level up thanks to exploration XP… might have to try that this weekend, just for fun, and see how many levels I can accrue just by walking around to places I’m not supposed to see). I can’t tackle enemies far beyond my abilities, so going some places will be very difficult if not impossible, but I’m otherwise free to go in nearly any direction I feel like.
A few nights ago, I took my level 16 Dwarf Hunter to Bloodmyst Isle to train a blue moth. My daughter wanted to see one in-game, so off I went. Not having been there before, I had to do a bit of exploring and Petopia/Wowpedia diving, but I eventually acquired a blue moth and took some screenshots of the area. It wasn’t really a difficult journey, but it was pretty far from the Ironforged rails I was on previously.
A few levels later, the now-19 Hunter went from Ironforge to Wailing Caverns via Stormwind, Teldrassil, Darkshore, Ashenvale and the Northern Barrens (yes, the Westfall>Stranglethorn Vale>Booty Bay>Ratchet>Northern Barrens route might have been faster, but it was an experiment, and I feared STV more than Ashenvale). Darkshore has been significantly mauled in the Shattering, and it’s a blast to just wander around in. Ashenvale is tricky, with Horde and Alliance butting heads and dangerous wildlife to a sub-20 character. Though as always, Hunters can take down foes a few levels higher, it’s still not safe territory. A level 24 wolf wasn’t much trouble… but a pack of them would be death. I had to pick fights, dodge aggro bubbles and avoid Horde patrols.
I still couldn’t make it through the Horde gates at the Barrens border, though, even with Alliance footsoldiers running interference. The Spirit Healer in the Barrens took pity on me and pulled me through, but after accepting the resurrection penalty, the Barrens were still dangerous, especially with Horde players roaming about. Three Hordies killed me once 40 meters or so off the road on the way to the Caverns, so I carefully skulked in the shadows and along mountain edges after that. They probably thought I was going to assault the Crossroads, but since Alliance and Horde can only communicate in cutscenes, I couldn’t tell them my intentions were peaceful.
Getting to the instance portal was also an exercise in careful pulling. I could handle two foes at once in the cave, but three would have been death. Getting past the nasty pond dinosaur trap midcave was tricky, too. Luckily, my bear was OK with playing bait, and we both got through. We even managed to kill one of the raptors in the instance itself, a level 19 Elite, but I chickened out of trying two at a time, since it was a close fight. (Maybe I just stink, and two would have been easy for a real player, but 1 elite dinosaur was my limit. Well, 1.5, probably, but I figured 2 was too much, and since dinos don’t come in halves, I stopped at 1.)
Tangentially, I find it interesting that often, those who complain about wanting challenge can’t be bothered to go find it, but want it brought to them on a golden platter and forced on everyone else. They then complain about lazy players and “easy mode” as if those nefarious casuals (spit) were the only ones with a sense of entitlement. It’s especially funny to see the complainers using heirloom gear and whining about going too fast.
Most definitely, WoW’s public face is more “gamey” than ever before, but there’s still a world out there to explore, and it’s better than ever, especially for newbies. It’s beautiful, with the Blizzard artists taking the Old World and stepping up the visuals to great new heights. It’s still not as worldlike as I’d prefer, not by a long shot, but Azeroth isn’t all about hand-holding and going through the motions unless you let it be.
Boredom is a sign of low curiosity, a personal failure to engage mentally. It’s not the world failing to entertain you, it’s you failing to investigate some of the many wonders that exist and initiate experimentation with what tools you have. The same applies to challenge and exploration.
We’re not in Kansas any more, so take that road less traveled, or even go make your own. There’s plenty of challenging and interesting content off the beaten track if you go looking for it.
EDITED TO ADD: