Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fear of Draenor

We are at the eve of the new expansion for World of Warcraft. My sense is that anticipation is high, and how could it be otherwise when a year-long near-total content drought is about to break? The expansion, Warlords of Draenor, seems designed to appeal to long-time core players. It is a return to central themes of the franchise after two expansions that have widely been seen as side trips. We will return, in a way, to Outland, the location of the highly regarded Burning Crusade expansion. It will be dark! Grim! Epic!

I have been in a state somewhere between anxiety and dread regarding this expansion since it was announced last fall. I am at this point something of a veteran, of WoW and of MMOs more generally, so in principle this expansion should be for me. Yet I find myself put off in ways large or small by virtually everything about it. What worries me?

1) Lore and aesthetics. Time travel? Multiple dimensions interacting? Defeated villains suddenly threatening us again because of narrative widgets? Suddenly finding ourselves fighting to save some random group of whoever that should by all rights be in a completely separate causal bubble from us? It's like the writers at Blizzard read a bunch of early 2000s Marvel comics and decided to copy all the worst thematic elements!

Oh, but Draenor isn't just a narrative dead end of an alternate dimension. No! It is dark! Grim! Masculine! With orcs and growly serious male voices making important plans. Will Jack Bauer do a cross-over for a quest line involving gratuitous torture?

At the reveal event for the Warlords cinematic, we were gleefully informed that "the age of the whimsical panda is over." I understand the market forces here, and realize that some important subset of the Warcraft market didn't like the whimsical pandas. I loved them, though! For the last two years, our characters have mostly been living and questing in sunny, charming zones surrounded by pandaren who seem to have actual lives (farms, families, breweries, alcohol addictions ahem). These spaces still make me happy. Now I am asked to exchange that for a year (or two? or three?) in a place that, while beautifully realized, does not seem half as warm.

2)  Class changes. We have seen the ability pruning live in game for the last couple of weeks, and it is mostly fine. I can heal with my shaman and my priest, dps with my shaman, and tank-I-guess with my family of lowbie tanking specs. All the mobs have become squishy enough that all is well.

So why does the (sometimes moderate and sometimes drastic) reduction in buttons for us to push strike me as ominous? The ability pruning, in combination with the sharp reduction in the defensive effectiveness of tanks and the throughput of healers relative to damage and health bars, reads to me as a signal that we should prepare ourselves for... Action! Combat!

I don't mind action combat in contexts where it fits and is done well. Diablo games and Marvel Heroes are among my favorites, and I enjoyed combat in Guild Wars 2. Action combat where it doesn't fit the engine and is awkwardly added in? Not so much. World of Warcraft's interface is great at allowing players to manage cooldowns, combos, temporary boosts and buffs, and so forth. It is not a great interface for intensive character movement. So how much do I look forward to movement-intensive fights designed to test our very souls now that we have slimmed down character abilities? Not much.

3) What is being removed. As far as I can tell, crafting and gathering are more or less being removed as major elements of game play. Flight is gone for the foreseeable future. Gear customization is drastically reduced. Rewards from lower difficulty settings in raids have been cut back. Why take away variety in game play?

4) The new mechanics. I am just not excited at all about garrisons. I like player housing! But garrisons are not player housing. They are a quest hub. Which is clearly new to the World of Warcraft, I guess. I am also not thrilled about the open world pvp zone. I've played WvW in Guild Wars 2 a lot, and this seems like that game mode's even more silly and meaningless stepchild. And endgame solo progression based on the Timeless Isle? This would have been a great idea had we not spent about a year on the Timeless Isle.

5) Orcs! Orcs to the tenth power. Orcs versus orcs! Orcs with orcs riding on their backs and a cocktail of orcs with an orc aperitif followed by a main course of orcs with a light refreshing bit of orcs for dessert. Orcs are an open invitation to Blizzard to max out the shallow, adolescent sturm und drang --- and this is not exactly a company that goes for reserved, subtly shaded storytelling at the best of times.

I will play anyway, certainly enough to level a character or two to 100 and try out the initial dungeons and raids. But I feel alienated! Isolated! Marginalized! And saying so provides catharsis, even if nobody in the world agrees with me.

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