Looking back at two years of the 2nd World of Warcraft expansion.
World of Warcraft – Wrath of the Lich King Epilogue
With patch 4.0.1 and the intro cinematic being released, the third expansion for World of Warcraft is approaching fast. As usual i want to look back at what we played in the last two years of the game. To preparate for the article, i went back to The Burning Crusade. Visited some old instances, watched some videos and looked at older screenshots. If i should sum up Lich King as an expansion it would be generic improvements. At this point Lich King looks to be the better expansion that won’t last as long in my memories, as The Burning Crusade. For the next walls of text, i’ll try to go into more details, i will exclude class balance though.
Setting and Quests
There’s a roadmap that leaked in early WoW beta, about what continent potential upcoming expansions would cover. So far that map seems 100% legit and so it was no suprise, that Northrend was the 2nd new landmass to play. Blizzard kinda drop the first ball here. Coming from two years of playing spacy environments in Burning Crusade the more traditional fantasy Northrend seemed superior. Comparing both settings right now, i’m convinced Outland will be remembered longer. Northrend lacks the scale and variety of Burning Crusade’s zones.
By far the biggest strength of this expansion, Blizzard really improved the quest design for the game. That’s where i see the biggest improvements. Playing the game solo keeps up with single player offline RPGs. Again the major issue for a game of this size is scale. Where dozens of quests is enough for other games, WoW needs hundreds and thousands. Sure overlap in terms of design can not fully be avoided, but in Lich King they expanded the Kill 10 foozles blueprint, with phasing – e.g. realtime world server instancing for single players – being the new killer tool to design story focused quests. Actually this is a whole separate part of the game so to speak and something i so look forward to in Cataclysm. Eploring new zones by questing kinda is a unique experience. If you like this kind of gameplay, even Lich King is perfect already. What it spoiled some, may only be the popularity of the game, with dozens of players waiting and hunting single shared quest NPCs. Dungeon Finder will take the heat out of this for Cataclysm i guess.
This topic won’t be pretty. Let me just say this: raid dungeon and encounter design in Lich King is the only area where Blizzard really took at least two steps backwards. Let’s start with the news they pushed months prior release, that their raid progression for this expansion would be separated into two sizes. With Karazhan in Burning Crusade being so successful, they took it to the next level and offering 10 player versions for every new raid instance. Their proof of concept should be the two year old instance Naxxramas. Blizzard chose this as raid Tier 1 to look if their designers really can come up with two scaled versions of single encounters. They succeeded to proof 10man raids being viable and they failed to introduce a compelling first raid tier for this expansion. Let’s compare Malygos, Sartharion and Naxxramas against Karazhan, Gruul and Magtheridon from Burning Crusade. Blizzard kinda beta tested too many new ideas in Lich King raid tier 1. 10man scale, vehicle based combat (Malygos) and multiple tiered difficulty for the same encounter (Sartharion).
After a rough start, Blizzard was about to drop the single best raid instance they have ever produced and probably one of the top 3 i have ever played. Ulduar was the shit. Ulduar finally was all the small parts of the new expansion coming together. This dungeon looks good, plays good and rewards you well for it. Ulduar is the only instance in this expansion, wich flaws are minimal. Remember the doubts for the dungeon and encounters? A complete boss about vehicle based combat? Look how well this really turned out to be. The brilliance of Ulduar was the concept of Sartharion adopted to many bosses. Choose your own meta-difficulty: heroic Mimiron. My raid never beat it, but i won’t forget every single try. What an amazing encounter. Ulduar is the single highlight of Lich King raids. It’s a perfect dungeon. Period,
Just when you thought Blizzard figured out to deliver, they droped the worst raid. I won’t even begin to count the flaws of Crusaders‘ Coliseum. Nothing about this raid is good. Everything is flawed on so many levels. It’s really awful…and then we waited, and waited and waited even longer for Blizzard to built the climax dungeon for the expansion. For a quick summary: Icecrown is good but not very much. Compared to Burning Crusade’s climax dungeon Black Temple, Icecrown pales. There are some very good design ideas here, but compared to Ulduar Blizzard underperformed in Icecrown. The only boss in here i will remember for a long time is the Professor. Everyhing else, including the Lich King himself? Very generic and forgotten fast. The built-up and pacing of Icecrown is lacking and very few bosses impress. There are too many high-concept encounters. The Blood Queen being the perfect example. It’s a gimmick fight, where your raid has to master the Vampire buff, while juggling the usual generic tasks. What in theory sounds neat, is executed very lackluster. As a healer this is one of the worst fights i’ve ever played. Spam your heal and pray for others not to fuck it up. That’s fun…not.
Try to count the number of points and emblems collected over the last two years. It boggles the mind how much they tinkered with progression paths. I’m conviced it’s very wise to lock players into one path for Cataclysm. While it will kill 25man raids for sure, playing both 10s and 25s along each other doesn’t make sense. Heroic 5mans were rendered futile way too fast. Lich King lacked any difficulty small scale content. Part of this being the result of the messed up item progression. Blizzard never intended the game to have to epic-epic levels of raid gear. Heroics messed up so much, that players outgeared content within a blink of an eye. This is why encounters became more and more twitch-based. Raids wiping within 1 GCD? Unbelievable once. Reality now. This is why they pull the handbrake for Cataclysm. Slow it down and streamline it.
Scope and Scale
It all comes down to this. I’ll look at Burning Crusade encounters and start to memorize the pain and suffering. Kaelthas destroyed three of my raids back then. Big experienced raids, just vanished cause we couldn’t beat the encounter. It beat us. Almost literally and still, if i remember the first time we got him into phase 5, when he destroys the room, floats up into the air and takes the raid with him…amazing. An unforgettable gaming moment. Something like that was sacrificed for accessibility in Wrath of the Lich King. Yeah heroic bosses still beat the crap out of you, but why bang your head against the door, when you got the key right in your pocket (normal mode). Here’s a secret: you value rewards more, if you have to really earn it. In Lich King earning rewards did not exist (normal mode) or wasn’t worth it (heroic).
Raid progression and instances just felt more epic in Burning Crusade. I don’t doubt that 10man raids are popular and a good business decision for Blizzard but it also decreased the epicness of the game at least for me. The really epic scale got lost and i don’t see it coming back for Cataclysm. The game changed over the last two years of this expansion. It’s different now. It’s way more bite sized. for sure. Dungeon Finder, Weekly Raid Quests and all the little UI improvements set new standards but in the end i will rate Wrath of the Lich King below the prior The Burning Crusade. I know it’s nitpicking cause at the end of the article one thing is for sure. To rate MMORPGs the scale goes from 0 to World of Warcraft, even Lich King doesn’t change that.