With the advent of 4.0.3a, the world has changed beyond recognition and Deathwing is out there somewhere, torching whatever he damn well pleases (unless he's in the Badlands). Bearing this in mind, it's now time for my review of Wrath of the Lich King despite it being a bit later than many other commentators. I've done this deliberately because it's always worth seeing another perspective on something I either loved or hated, purely out of a desire to see if I missed the developers intention and would have appreciated something differently had I scoped it from another lens. Also, with Cataclysm now firmly inbound, I feel it would be cathartic to say what I think about the past two years.
If one word was to sum up our adventures in Northrend, it would be access.
Blizzard clearly wanted Wrath of the Lich King to be the expansion where nobody was left out, no matter how much time and effort they were willing to put into the game. This was awesome for the super-casual because it meant they could raid current end-game content, grab gear, charge about in battlegrounds and get fast access to PvE instances. Even reputation grinds for mandatory gear enhancements were made simple by removing them from the "busy-work" pile and putting them on the "PvE" pile. For the more committed PvE player, this fast became a problem because there wasn't enough content for one character. Once you'd geared to a certain level, there ceased to be any worthwhile character development outside of your raid lock and we've seen an explosion of alts as a direct consequence. Heirlooms and talents not-designed for the old world or, indeed, Outland managed to trivialize much of what happened before you landed on Howling Fjord or the Borean Tundra. If you were a committed PvP player, well... You had a laundry list of issues that were all your own.
Bluntly put, the developers wanted as many people to see as much of their game as possible and evidence tells us that they went to admirable lengths to ensure it happened. For good or ill, that was the direction they took and that was how Wrath of the Lich King remained throughout. Being ultra-all inclusive sounds great on paper in a political sense, but it did cause some pretty significant wheels to come off the World of Warcraft jabberwocky in the meantime. For almost every good choice or implementation, it had a negative impact on those at the other side of the spectrum.
We'll look at a few.
The achievement system was a rip-roaring success, and it's only fair we start with it. The cynicism about it started before patch 3.0 went live and got shot to bits not long afterwards. Not only is it a way of developing your character in a myriad of ways by guiding you to what's available, it's a terrific way of showing off what your character is capable of. Titles and rewards are always nice and while it's easy to cheese a lot of achievements at this point, many of them are still a sign that you're looking at a skilled character. From the raiding perspective, it provided that middle ground between casual and hardcore, and it's for this main point that I appreciated it most. I'll let the reader decide what achievements he or she personally deem worthwhile. :)
The move to create 10 man versions of all raids was a masterstroke. This created a huge opportunity for so many players who were skilled, but didn't want the hassle of dealing with 25 man raid issues. Essentially, this opened up end game content to a huge percentage of the player base and allowed for an explosion of new guilds ready to tackle the content. Conversely, it still caused certain stigma to be applied to 10 man raiders. Despite the fact that (to the erudite, anyway) 10 man strict rankings were generally a higher indication of skill, the lack of legendaries or certain achievements/titles made it look less desirable. Many "realm first" 10 man achievements were effectively stolen by 25 man guilds who significantly outgeared the content they were playing; this was frequently a bitter pill to swallow. Of course, it should also be noted that the "guild explosion" saw something like an 80% mortality rate. Lastly, it also made gear scaling an impossible equation to balance out, and leads onto our next point.
Improved Gear Scaling.
Giving people easy access to gear is good when you have alts that want to get involved in the latest content, or you're a player coming back from a break. It's bad for almost every other facet of the game. It removes the feeling of reward, it skews encounter progression, it obfuscates bad players, it dilutes individuality amongst the playerbase and it causes content to become obsolete far too quickly. Though rehashed, Naxxramas was a good enough raid instance for the 99% of present-day players that never tackled the original 40 man when it was current content and it is now utterly ignored, except for weekly raid quests. This is even more galling when you consider the fantastic Ulduar is also routinely skipped for the same reason. As if fate is trying to flip the bird at us, the first raid deemed mandatory (typically for weapons) was the awful Trial of the Crusader. For anyone who thoroughly dislikes the mindless zerg-fest that heroic instances have become, and especially those who long for the good old days of the Shadow Labyrinth or Magister's Terrace, this is your main reason why.
I need this one out of the way; trying to make all classes viable was a good move and one I wholeheartedly support. The problem, of course, was that balance became particularly difficult to establish. Blizzard eventually settled for "close enough" and that's the best you can ask for realistically, but it still sucks to be the one consistently at the bottom. For me, playing a Protection warrior was frustrating - doing everything you can to be the best possible, then being outperformed by someone putting in less effort due to virtue of his class, is not fun. Warrior utility was supposed to be the check against being benched, but the last expansion asked for brute strength and not sophistication. In the last tier of content, when everything mattered most, paladins and druids ended up being the best healers and the best tanks. If you were an Arms warrior, Frost mage or Subtlety rogue then you know what I'm talking about. Of course, that's PvE. PvP was where the problem really showed itself.
What a mess. The few times I got involved in it, I was thoroughly discouraged by being blown up by an Elemental shaman or Retribution paladin without any chance of survival. Death knights? Really? The statistics for each bracket indicate, quite clearly, that seasons were dominated by composition and gear, not skill. Against that backdrop, the developers are going to have to accept that their attempts at PvP balance have utterly failed throughout WotLK. Not only that, but several balancing attempts had a significant, and horrible, impact on classes in PvE. No - I'm not going to forgive them for what happened to Warbringer. And in Cataclysm, this is one of the facets they're really going to have to fix. It's just a shame that they couldn't build in the margin for error we saw in PvE.
The "Margin for Error".
Time gone, several things used to kill you. Not interrupting; bad threat management; healers running out of mana; bad positioning; poor crowd control; ignorance of raid mechanics; standing in fire. Officially, the developers decided that they didn't want everyone punished for an unfortunate mistake - unofficially, it led to laziness and a dumbing down of the playerbase. Blizzard are dead right when they say that the players at the top are now better than they ever were. However, they fail to acknowledge that there is a higher percentage of flat-out bad players around the lower echelons of content who assume that a healer or tank can save them regardless of the situation. That belief follows on into behaviour that implies healers and tanks are responsible for everything. Luckily, this is being dealt with in Cataclysm.
The idea of making raid encounters more difficult to get better gear or complete meta-achievements is a good one, and there are good ways to do it. There are also, however, bad ways to do it and we've seen both throughout Wrath of the Lich King. Once again, Ulduar absolutely shines in its production of hard modes. They were fun, interactive and, in most cases, saw a fight change almost completely. Sartharion is another wonderful example of how to stagger the difficulty of a fight. Of course, there are bad ways; entirely separate lock outs of the same instance with more damage coming in, more damage going out and not a lot else. And it's best we don't discuss the Faction Champion encounter. Blizzard is settling for the middle ground it reached in Icecrown Citadel, by allowing the players to toggle heroic modes on or off depending on the boss coming up. While not as fun or intuitive as Ulduar's hard modes, it's a country mile better than Trial of the Crusader.
Anyway, I'm going to wrap up there - this has gone on long enough and I suspect those who have sat it out to this point have blood coming out of their eyes. Let's sum this up with a top and bottom five:
5. Achievements: A great way of keeping track of what you've been up to, and a chance to earn titles. Not only did it cater to every aspect of the game imaginable, it did it in a prescriptive way that didn't prescribe.
4. 10 man raiding: This made our guild "the" place to be and we really shined when all of our best players were available. Yes, we heard the comparisons; but no single action made the game more accessible.
3. Hard modes: We didn't get through all of these while current, but they added new dimensions to encounters. Not only that, they provided a way to separate the wheat from the chaff when comparisons are drawn.
2. Warbringer: THE signature talent for Protection warriors, and more fun than sharing a sleeping bag with Cheryl Cole. Yes, the nerf was hard to take - but that shouldn't detract from a great and unique talent.
1. Ulduar: The XT-002 Deconstructor. The Iron Council. Mimiron. Algalon the Observer. Yogg-Saron. Put simply, Ulduar was an absolutely magisterial example of a raid instance, and Blizzard's best ever PvE work.
5. Player Versus Player: Nothing that happened in WotLK made me want to play PvP more than I did previously. Blown to bits in no time, with composition and gear determining winners - just not fun at all.
4. Five man instances: Alas, Blizzard just didn't get them right. Yes, they were steamrolled once outgeared (as it should be), but they weren't challenging enough to begin with as major mechanics could be ignored.
3. Gear similarity: I like earning gear as much as the next bloke, but "earning" is the key word. Gear became too easy to get a hold of, to the point it was practically being thrown at players for next to no effort.
2. Balance: As a warrior, it's frustrating when competitive becomes synonymous with "broken". The endless cycle of buffs and nerfs just hints at deeper problems they've taken six years to address properly.
1. Trial of the Crusader: Everything great about Ulduar was reversed. Old models, old mechanics, no trash, no epic scenery and no story; even the patch trailer was bog-awful. One to truly forget for Blizzard.
So, what did you love and what did you hate?
And it's okay to disagree. :)