With a new expansion pack to World of Warcraft nigh, I thought it interesting to write down my thoughts about the game as it has evolved over the last decade.
Vanilla – In retrospect, this was godawful. So many useless classes and specs, horrible itemization, terrible tuning of all dungeons and most raids. There was no catch up mechanism for raiding so progression guilds were still doing Molten Core in Nax. In terms of mechanics, contemporary boss and dungeon design is light years ahead. Finally, while at the time leveling was a revelation compared to the likes of Everquest and such, with hindsight it was complete trash. It took forever and the questing thinned out as you approached 60 such that I ended up grinding. I still have fond memories of the original Stranglethorn Vale on a PvP server. It was dense with quests and people and gankers and it was pretty glorious at the time.
The Burning Crusade – BC is not that much different than Vanilla except with a team that was much more familiar with their game. All the new zones were of higher quality and great aesthetics (except Hellfire Peninsula) and the questing experience was much more coherent and complete. Still, the class balance was atrocious for the entire expansion. This was the era where you brought a moonkin solely for their raid buff and a shadow priest to buff your warlocks.
If you were a hardcore raider this was probably an amazing expansion. The raid content came out in a deluge and was supposedly very good, with the possible exception of Mount Hyjal. For us mere mortals, there was again no catch up mechanism so we all slummed it in Karazhan and Zul’ Aman for an entire expansion pack. This is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that Karazhan was pretty freaking amazing. In terms of 5 man content, Blizzard nailed the aesthetics but I found most mechanically uninteresting. However, the real problem was the tuning. They were really hard for absolutely terrible rewards. It made no sense that Karazhan was easier than most of the 5 man heroics.
The Wrath of the Lich King – What we have here is a profound shift in the philosophy of raiding. Blizzard realized that making raid content that 5% of the population, at most, would ever see was dumb and might cost subscribers in the future. Thus we got a retuned Naxx, which may be the easiest raid instance ever put into the game. Naxx is a great raid, but because it was so easy it made the long duration until Ulduar was released nearly unbearable. I had alts with nigh best in slot gear by the time Ulduar came out.
The wait was worth it. Ulduar is the BEST raid yet released for the game. Everything about it is awesome: the theme, the boss fights, the achievements. It also introduced hard modes, a first attempt to allow raids to be tuned easier while still providing a challenge to the hardcore raiders. While future hard modes were flip a switch and the boss has more HP and damage, Ulduar hard modes usually had some kind of ingenious method to unlock them and significantly changed the fight. The pinnacle of the instance and the hard mode concept is hard mode Mimiron. Anyone that did this fight as progression will tell you that despite kicking your ass over and over again, it was insanely fun.
Unfortunately, after this was a stopgap raid called Trial of the Crusader. This was a letdown after Ulduar. Now there was just a toggle switch for hard modes and it all took place in a very bland arena. The fights themselves were solid, but I know most people disagree with me. However, much like Naxx it lasted far too long for its own good, especially because at the time you were probably running it on the same character up to four time a week (10, 25 and heroic mode of each). This was ripe for burnout.
Icecrown Citadel, the culmination of the battle against the Lich King, eventually arrived and it was pretty awesome. Not as good as Ulduar, but at least top 5 in the game. Hard modes usually threw in one more mechanic and nearly every fight had a few interesting mechanics to them. There were a few missteps, Sindragosa was absolutely awful and Dreamwalker a bit too gimmicky. I also like the Lich King fight in theory, but in reality it had too many phases and was too long, much like many end raid bosses. I don’t like having to do the boring first phase over and over again so I can learn the next phase that is 8 minutes into the fight. ICC normal was actually tuned fairly easy encouraging a lot of pick-up groups and this was the first instance to receive a numbers nerf that grew over time.
Apart from raiding, the new leveling zones were Blizzard reaching the end of the line in terms of the old-fashioned questing structure. The next two expansion packs showed no improvement and maybe a little degradation. Another big change was the introduction of catch up mechanisms for raiding. Almost every tier, except Ulduar, brought easy methods to gear up to levels appropriate for the new raid. Finally, the end of the expansion brought about the Dungeon Finder tool that automatically put a group together for you. This has profound implications for how all future content had to be designed and was the precursor to Looking For Raid. It proved so popular that basically every MMO since has included the feature.
To summarize, this was a huge step in the game and in MMO design. Now you could skip raids and still get into raiding later. More difficulty modes meant that there was an appropriate challenge no matter your skill level and for the first time a good portion of the player base was raiding. Finally, we see that for the first time the game is putting together groups for players rather than putting the burden on the players to form up.
Cataclysm – The beginning of this expansion showcased a reactionary Blizzard that was not confident in the direction they had taken the game in the previous expansion pack. Much like the more vocal minority of the game, Blizzard seemed to feel that they had casualized the game too much. This resulted in much harder 5 man content and maybe the hardest tier of raiding in the game.
I thoroughly enjoyed the 5 man dungeons of Cata, my main complaint was the length of some and of course a lot of really bad players. In terms of design, they were mostly fantastic. These were boss fights that might have been in a raid instance of a previous expansion. The problem here was that LFD, shorthand for Dungeon Finder, was still relatively new and was mostly used to run the trivialized heroics of WotLK. People weren’t prepared to get thrown together with 5 random people and do fights that were actually difficult. Furthermore, early Cataclysm was hell on healers. Blizzard had nerfed them hard after dissatisfaction with the spammy healing of WotLK. I like healing in WotLK and the irony was that it didn’t take much gear before healers in Cataclysm were back to spamming. Warlords of Draenor sees Blizzard once again trying to cut back on healing spam, only time will tell if they succeeded.
The other evidence of this shift was found in the raiding content. Tier 11 was insanely hard. Normal difficulty was on par with heroic mode in ICC, particularly in 10 man difficulty. Part of this was Blizzard not knowing how to tune 10 mans, but mostly it was indicative of their harsh raiding philosophy. On top of that, the fights had a plethora of mechanics. I really liked most of the fights, but it’s true that some had TOO many abilities and the overuse of interrupts was quite apparent. If they had just made normal less punishing I think I would remember it more fondly.
I quit before Firelands, but revisiting it later, I found it unexciting and Dragon Soul is the perhaps the worst raid yet conceived. Furthermore, the quantity of raiding content was minuscule in comparison to every other expansion. The retuned ZA and ZG were fine, but the three 5-mans that came with Dragon Soul were awful and horribly easy. It was clear that Blizzard was backpedaling furiously from their decision to make game content harder.
I can’t forget to mention the introduction of LFR with Dragon Soul. I think this is a solid feature despite the scorn heaped upon it. However, it is true that it influences encounter design all the way up to heroic difficulty and that can’t really be called a good thing.
The revision of the main game world was great, it was looking really dated after WotLK showed us what was possible. I liked Uldum (I am a sucker for Egyptian themes) and Deepholme and Vashjir, the underwater zone, was great exactly once.
Mists of Pandaria – I really enjoyed the aesthetics of this expansion, however leveling was horrendous. It was slower than Cataclysm and I can’t say I enjoyed any of the new zones. The new 5 mans were trivial on release. Even the relatively easy WotLK 5 mans didn’t become easy until after a few raid tiers of gear. Since I enjoy that part of the game a lot, it was really unfortunate.
Blizzard didn’t design any further 5 mans either, instead opting to focus on scenarios. Scenarios only have three people and no reliance on a tank or healer. This sounded great to me in principle. Now you have to win by doing enough dps and not standing in stuff. Unfortunately, Blizzard put absolutely no effort into any of them as far as I can tell. They were boring and faceroll for the most part. Blizzard also counts them a failure as they are scaling them back in Warlords of Draenor to a storytelling device. Of course the problem is their design ability not the concept, but Blizzard would never admit that.
This was probably the expansion pack I did the least raiding in, skipping the entirety of Throne of Thunder. However, my impressions were that all three tiers were good and there were a lot of bosses. This wasn’t Cataclysm with its tiers of seven or eight bosses. I do think Throne of Thunder is highly overrated and nowhere near the next Ulduar as Blizzard and some fans have claimed. Siege of Orgrimmar, on the other hand, gets a bad reputation because it lasted 14 months. Blizzard once again dropped the ball on the time between the last raid tier and the expansion pack, as they do every time. Otherwise it’s actually pretty good.
The big feature introduced at the end of the expansion pack was flex raiding. This was a new raid difficulty even easier than normal that scaled its difficulty to the number of players. What we have here is Blizzard backing away from LFR and LFD style design and encouraging players to form their own groups. I am a fan of the PuGs that formed in Wrath for ICC and Naxx because of their relatively easy difficulty and I much prefer them to the LFR paradigm where everything is braindead easy so anyone can complete it. I am glad that it is continuing forth into the next expansion pack and expanding to normal raids too.
That leaves my final ranking of the expansions
Cataclysm had the potential to be great, but a lackluster finish and a harsh beginning really hurt it. Anyone that looks fondly on BC or Vanilla has some really pink shades on.