Warlords of Draenor launches tomorrow

Warlords of Draenor launches tomorrow. More than any other World of Warcraft expansion, I feel a question mark as to how this expansion will be received because there seems to be a lot riding on it. On paper, it looks like it will be a top notch offering. Many of my friends never truly liked Pandaria as an idea, but we all played it because it was very high quality and very well made. Luckily, the core of the game was not lost among the cartoony pandas.

I transmogged my Paladin into a Death Knight 

Looking back on the MoP expansion has me a bit torn. On one hand I initially loved it for the quality of design, music, and changes to game systems. On the other hand, it is safe to say that Pandaria is my least favorite WoW expansion (It is the only World of Warcraft product that I refused to buy the Collector's Edition for). I was always opposed to and turned off by the Pandarian concept. The whole idea of taking an April Fool's joke and turning it into a playable race and story within the game still seems a touch silly to me especially when there were so many other great races that could have been chosen. I know Blizzard had their reasons and you can see what they were going for, but ultimately, it is clear that fans want WoW back to its roots and that is exactly what it seems Blizzard is doing with WoD. 

WoD will bring us back to a world which we know, to an extent. Also it is a world in which many players enjoyed their stay. Yes, bring us back to Outland even if it is a different version of it. It will bring back the war. Pandaria was a bit light-hearted and philosophical. WoD, at its core, is about hunkering down and preparing for war. Its main selling point, Garrisons, is exactly that.

So here we stand on the edge of the end of Pandaria and on the brink of Warlords of Draenor. WoD holds so much promise and hope for many players. Mix that with updated holiday events and the 10th Anniversary celebrations and this game is poised to keep me away from all other video games for the rest of the year. I'm not complaining about it either.

So clear your quest log and read that guide about Garrisons. Also fire up this Warlords of Draenor inspired playlist I created on Rdio as a companion to doing battle.

Review: Mists of Pandaria is a Return To Form and Then Some

In my small group of friends, I am the only one playing World of Warcraft's latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Everyone else is either not interested or lacks the necessary time. These are people who have all played WoW in the past and conquered all previous expansions alongside me. The part of not having the time is based heavily around being older and being recovering MMO addicts in addition to an interest in trying to not get sucked into just one game. The part about not being interested revolves somewhat around the idea that pandas are corny and I imagine this is not uncommon.

I feel sentiments of both of those ideas to an extent. Time is a precious commodity for everyone and an MMO requires more time than most other types of games. Beyond that, I was never excited to see pandas in WoW. I was content seeing them on the WoW homepage during April Fool's Day as a joke, but it ended there. I purchased Mists of Pandaria differently than any other World of Warcraft game in the past: Alone, online, basic version, no fanfare, and almost in an obligatory fashion. I thought about ending WoW altogether or trying a different MMO instead, maybe Guild Wars 2. But I already knew the outcome of that choice. I would buy Guild Wars 2 and get bored of it then buy Mists of Pandaria. So I just purchased MoP and dove in on day one.

I did not have terribly high expectations. I actually presumed I would not like it. It is now a month after release and I have not stopped playing. Mists of Pandaria is truly a return to form and then some. It is so much more than anything Blizzard has ever done with WoW. Over the last several years Blizzard has changed, tweaked, added, and deleted so many features and systems that it almost seems precisely planned that MoP is some sort of grand culmination and maturing of all previous changes.

This expansion could not be what it is without the maturity of the Dungeon Finder and Raid Finder. Both were evolutions of the idea of solving the issues of getting people into dungeons quickly by grouping them automatically and allowing them to join these instances from wherever they were in the world and took away the need to be on the same server. These systems also place players nice and neatly back to what they were doing before the encounter. It did not always work that way. Now, it is another facet of the game that is expected and it just works.

There are several new dungeons to conquer. My preferred method is to queue up for 1 or 2 dungeons per day as I am leveling. This gives some quick XP boosts in addition to adding some blue gear to help leveling even more. It is not necessary to do this by any means as many quests offer hearty gear upgrades as well, blues included. These new dungeons are straight up, "to the point" with the least amount of trash mobs as ever before.

At level 90, with an average item level of at least 450, players can begin heroic dungeons which offer slightly greater challenges and slightly better loot. One of the best tests of a dungeon's staying power is whether or not you mind returning to its heroic version for numerous subsequent runs. In Cataclysm for instance, I was never thrilled about going into Grim Batol Heroic due to its longer duration than other dungeons. It sometimes felt tedious. None of the new dungeons feel this way to me in MoP. Completing your gear drops from heroics will lead you to getting your average item level to 460 for raids and so on (470 for further raiding). Just last night I was able to hop into a Raidfinder version of Mogu'shan Vaults for the final boss encounter. It is a similar experience to the Raid Finder content in Cataclysm except you win your own loot instead of rolling against the whole raid which is a welcome change.

This game feels like it was directly tuned from all of my previous positive and negative expansion experiences. Leveling feels just right. Leveling is made up of standard WoW questing fare: Collection quests, kill quests, and an occasional bombing run. Every once in a while a quest might stand out and make you smile like the one featuring Master Bruise Paw in Paoquan Hollow which plays like mix of Karate Kid and Kill Bill training. More care has been taken to make sure multiple quests happen closer together so it is easier to stay more organized and productive. Once an entire quest hub is completed, you are offered a ride to the next one. This helps to keep up with the natural questing progression if you so choose to follow it.

The star of this expansion though, is the game world. The zones are some of the best that have been crafted in any MMO I have ever played. The zones are vast, beautiful, detailed and made with care. Each area is memorable which means the designs were well thought out. Even though I do not care for pandas, their home world is fleshed out with ridiculous amounts of culture and story. It is difficult to not be pulled into it and care a little. Blizzard has created an entire continent that I actually want to spend a lot of time on. Whether it be a rainy afternoon by the Lake of Stars or a bright sunny morning near the Great Wall, the world is a true marvel to behold. As a testament to the vast beautiful continent, I never fly too far from the ground so I do not miss any of the character or charm.

This appreciation for the new zones could only facilitated by the inability to fly until you are level 90. At first I was frustrated to learn that the ability to fly had been taken away yet again as I began my journey, but as I experienced the game from ground mounts only, I understood why flying was taken away and I did not mind. I actually preferred it. I feel like I would have missed out on so much. It should be noted that I have been level 90 for about a week and I have been flying all over Pandaria and I still have not seen it all. Needless to say, the charm of exploration is more alive than ever in this expansion.

The character progression options are nearly endless. Cooking has become more desirable and fun. This is a product of the happenings in and around Halfhill. Halfhill is a cooking hub that offers a plethora of things to do in the cooking profession. It certainly does not hurt that the new player farm feature is just across the field which integrates directly with cooking by allowing you to grow crops that are required by the newest recipes. In my experience, this area is a very popular place and only one piece of the huge progression puzzle MoP offers players. On a personal note, going into MoP, my cooking skill was a mere 82. Halfhill offers a helpful first for WoW professions: True power leveling for cooking. There are all new recipes with ingredients that can be purchased and found easily. I was able to level cooking to over 500 within a half hour. This is something totally new. Blizzard is telling players "We want you to experience what we have done with cooking and we want to make it easy for you to catch up".

Every other profession has seen its level cap raised to 600 including the newest profession, Archaeology. Archaeology has seen some new lore groups added in Pandaria which means new artifacts to find and also a new system that allows players to trade in commonly found artifacts for goodies to help with the profession. With that, another profession that has seen great additions is fishing by way of The Anglers which is a group of fishermen, including Nat Pagle, in Pandaria who offer you more fishing dailies. Fishing is amazing in MoP. There are so many lakes and rivers to fish from and there are more fishing pools than ever. Not to mention, many of the new fish are used in man new cooking recipes. In the right MoP zone with the right background music playing (and possibly while it is raining in-game), fishing is peaceful and one of the most unique ways to immerse yourself in Pandaria.

There are several factions to gain rep with which spans every department and corner of Pandaria. The rewards, as always, speak for themselves and many dailies intertwine in terms of giving Lesser Charms of Good Fortune as rewards which eventually yield Elder Charms that give you bonus rolls in raids (another new mechanic). There is an entire quest line that enables you to eventually obtain a Cloud Serpent mount, which I just recently started. If it is not apparent, MoP offers more of everything. There are also all new entire sets of achievements. So much to do, so little time.

With all of this meaty content, there are a ton of things I have not even touched yet in my first month like: Battlegrounds, rated or otherwise. I only had time for one scenario so far. I did not touch Challenge Mode yet. I did not roll a monk or check out its starting zones. I only took a short amount of time to try out Pet Battles (level 5). On a personal note, I have always loved taking part in Brewfest and Hallow's End which happened back to back the last few weeks. And forget about making it out to the Darkmoon Faire anytime soon even though I need to hand some quests in. There is a lot to do and that is what players look for in an MMO.

Conclusion

Reviewing an MMO is always a tough task. It took me a whole month to experience enough content to feel confident enough to write something substantial. One thing that strikes me is that the game does not seem to be getting the attention I feel it deserves. The only way to describe how that makes me feel is this: I feel bad for anyone who decided not to pick this expansion up simply because anyone who was ever a WoW player at any time deserves an expansion this good. I know many will not come back to this 8 year old game for numerous reasons, but I think anyone who does not experience Pandaria is missing out on one fine MMO expansion (not just a Warcraft one) and none of that sentiment has anything to do with pandas except for the name.

Bottom line: Anyone that has any kind of fire left for WoW should pick up this expansion. MoP sets the bar very high for future WoW expansions or any expansion for that matter. It is chock full of content and is well worth $40. Patch 5.1 is already on the PTR which will add even more things to do.

Star Wars: The Old Republic Lacks World of Warcraft’s Charm of Exploration

I have stated publicly in the past that I wish and hope a better MMO will come along and steal WoW players, myself included. I have eagerly tried as many MMOs as I could (Age of Conan, Guild Wars, Tabula Rasa, Matrix Online, DDO, LOTRO, Rift, City of Heroes, Warhammer Online, etc.) to hopefully find a game that I could enjoy in equal or greater amounts. It has not happened…yet. Star Wars: The Old Republic was only the latest game in which I focused this hope only to see it fail to pull me away from WoW.

I got on board with SW:TOR, and I got in early. The first thing I noticed about the game was that the production values were super high. Maybe too high? The first 10 levels alone were filled with great voice acting and story lines that seemed almost unnecessary, yet very well done. For those first 10 levels, I felt like I was playing a fantastic single player game (SW:KOTOR). I usually call it Trial of the Isle, thinking back to the first levels of Everquest II which drops the player on an island of early levels before you were able to join the likes of the real world. Many MMOs do this in some sense, and it is because of this that it is usually hard to get a feel for what the rest of the game is going to be like.

My problem with SW:TOR is that the early zone feeling never went away. Many of the world zones were one way in, one way out. Mountains or structures blocked you in and this takes away much of the exploration aspect of the game. In short, there really is none. Paths are on rails somewhat similar to Guild Wars. I cannot speak to later zones, but this identifies a major flaw in the game. The likes of early zones like Tython and Coruscant turned me off so much that I eventually quit. I can see how a zone like Tython might follow an "Isle"-like flow just to get a player going from level 1 to level 10. But as I arrived at Coruscant, not much changed in that sense.

Sure, you get your own ship and can explore outer space, but it's not the same. I still think a good MMO is one you could literally get lost in at some point, of course, ignoring all of today's map technology intelligently infused in almost every game. To be honest, I did get lost in SW:TOR but that's not because the world was vast and enchanting, but because the map system was lacking and the amount of instancing made certain areas confusing to get to and confusing in trying to understand where zones fit in the grand scheme of SW:TOR's world.

In contrast, as an Undead, the Deathknell zone is WoW's version of the "Isle". You are greeted with a generous open layout, even though you are "locked in" to a small zone considering the rest of the game. Once you reach level 7 or 8, you move onto Brill. Brill is a beautiful zone (even after the Cataclysm) complete with graveyards and creepy forest land that sets the tone for the surrounding zones as well. And it's open. Roam through the trees or swim to the bottom of Brightwater Lake. Explore to your heart's content. Brill is neighbors with The Undercity a major capital city and hub, the road to Silverpine Forest, and the roads that lead to the Scarlet Monastery and the Eastern and Western Plaguelands. The beauty is that you can go wherever and whenever you so choose. This means that players are escorted into in the real world from the get go. This is the kind of "charm" other games lack. Of course, beginning zones like those of the Blood Elf and Draenei are still unique exceptions, but while instanced, those zones still offer the same exploratory experience as any other zones attached to the world.

One anecdote I always come back to when comparing the world feel of other MMOs to WoW is something that happened to me way back in 2004 while leveling my first WoW character which happened to be my main character I still play today. The following anecdote speaks to my definition of the charm of exploration I find in WoW:

Not knowing very much about the entire world within WoW, I took a break in leveling at a mere level 17. I noticed blimps that you could get on and they appeared to bring you "somewhere". With a certain innocence and lust for exploration, I unknowingly, but excitedly boarded the giant airship to Grom'gol, Stranglethorn.
     When I arrived, I was in awe of the jungle-like setting and base that the Horde set up here. With not a care in the world, I left Grom'gol basecamp hoping to find…something, but really, I just wanted to look around. Within the first few minutes of leaving the base on the north side I saw creatures that resembled dinosaurs. I thought: "Oh wow this is cool!". Seconds later these, what I now know as raptors, aggroed me and I was dead before I could see the skulls next to their nameplate. But I wasn't angry. I was happy to have the option of freely and innocently exploring that zone and finding out on my own, that it came with the risk of dying to much higher level creatures.
     Looking back now, I cannot remember having a similar experience in any other game, where I felt this charmed by exploration. The only other time it happened was when I mounted up in WoW: The Burning Crusade right after its midnight launch, in Hellfire Peninsula and rode all the way to Nagrand just to see what awaited me in 5 more levels. It was a great exploratory experience and of course I was one-shotted by a higher level mob and of course, I didn't mind.

To be fair, the lack of “charm of exploration” was not the only reason I left SW:TOR. But it was the first reason. An MMO has to feel “right” from the beginning and throughout your entire experience, and then some, if the game company expects you to thrive and be happy in its end game. SW:TOR did some things right. It had a decent sense of character progression (your character feels progressively stronger as levels increase). There were numerous choices for gear and items on your way up to the end game. The story lines were very well thought out and produced. In the end, after 4 weeks of play, the game lost me and I cite the world as the first tipping point.

WoW is still the giant shadow hovering over this genre because it has set the bar so high on so many levels that we expect new MMOs to have learned all of the mistakes. We expect MMOs to build better systems and ideas than WoW right out of the gate. We are also fine with a new game literally stealing what it needs to from WoW to gain familiarity with the players. We unfairly expect EVERY new MMO to accomplish this.

But was it such a tall order to expect SW:TOR to accomplish, at least some of these things? What, with its huge budget ($200 million), huge publisher (EA), super successful developer (BioWare), and one of the most storied franchises in the world (Star Wars).

It helps us grudgingly conclude that what we suspected for quite some time, may be true. The only company that can pull us away from World of Warcraft may quite literally be Blizzard themselves.

Countdown To Cataclysm

I have been a player of World of Warcraft since its beginning in 2004. I have all of the collector’s editions and Cataclysm will be no exception. Sure there are periods where I do not get to play, but when an expansion comes out, it is an open invitation for players both inactive and active to enjoy the new content in its fresh new glory.

In my circle of friends we have coined the phrase “when everything goes back to zero” referring to when the new expansion drops. Zero, as it is so succinctly put, means that once Cataclysm ravages all of Azeroth, everything is reset. Your gear and items mean nothing. All that you have accomplished in even the largest of raids now becomes obsolete and only good for bragging rights. Even the hardest of the hardcore level 80’s will have to start leveling again and take the time to get the best gear possible once they hit the new level cap of 85.

It is no surprise then that this time period from now until December 7th is merely a countdown. For my personal taste, there is not much worth doing. Sure it might be worth stocking up on Honor points or Justice points. Some people are looking to maximize their achievements as well. It might even be worth taking one final tour of the zones before they are changed forever, but December 7th is really the day I am looking forward to.

The greatest thing about “Zero” is that it is a great time for old players to come back and for people that have never experienced the game to be on a level playing field with the entire population of the game. In the world of MMO’s, expansions are never guaranteed (They seem to be with WoW though) so when they do come along, if you were ever considering joining, it sure is a good time to jump in.

World of Warcraft is a phenomenon. It truly is a fantastic game and is one that has changed PC gaming forever. It has claimed the lives of some. It has spawned many things like funny videosnew kinds of websites, and even new ways to hold funerals. WoW is even used as a measurement of computer power before a purchase: ”As long as it can run WoW, I’ll be fine”.

Do you play WoW?