Saturday, 11 November 2017

Musings On Returning To WoW


The Blizzcon buzz had its intended effect on me. All the talk of Classic servers, a new expansion, fresh adventures in worlds old, new, both and neither, led me to patch up and log in to World of Warcraft for the first time in maybe a year.

In fact, I can't remember when I last played. I know I asked for and was given Legion for my birthday a year ago but all I did with it was register the purchase against my account.

I clearly remember playing for a couple of months during the exciting Legion pre-release Invasion event, at which point I presumably must have re-subscribed because I had access to my higher level characters when I was doing it. After that I seem to remember doing something in Warlords of Draenor and rapidly losing the will to live log in. After that, nothing.

Looking at character select it seems my Dwarf Hunter, who topped out in the low 70s back when I played WoW the first time, is now Level 95. I can only assume that happened during the invasions unless I used some kind of boost on him but I don't believe I've ever acquired a level boost for WoW.

I could fact-check all this by flipping through my back pages of course. No doubt I posted about most of it. It's telling, though, that I can't remember. I like WoW but it doesn't make that much of a lasting impression on me.

There are two reasons for that. Two that I can think of, anyway. One is the Lore and the other the graphics.

In the Oxford Visual Dictionary this is the entry for "Depressing"

WoW lore is opaque to me at best. Mostly it doesn't even manage obscurity. It's simply invisible. I didn't grow up with franchise. I didn't play Warcraft. Until WoW appeared in 2004 I had never even heard of Blizzard and even after the WoW juggernaut began to roll it was years before I'd have been able to name another Blizzard title.

When I did start playing none of the overarching story meant anything to me whatsoever. Plot twists and revelations must have soared over my head, not that I noticed. I did the Death Knight introduction for example, which people seem to rate very highly in terms of both lore and story, and all I remember about it was how long, tedious and claustrophobic it was.

Consequently, the only level on which the narrative connects with me is the local. I can empathize with the problems of farmers being menaced by scarecrows. I can immerse myself in the investigation of a murder or the search for a missing child but the machinations of racial leaders, tyrants, demon-kings and dragons might as well be so much static.

That's the problem with the writing but there's an even greater issue with the illustration. I'm not someone who has to have state-of-the-art graphics and I like WoW's semi-cartoon stylization - in theory.

In practice, though, as I've mentioned before, the textures are problematic. Worse, the palette has a tendency towards the morose that can be - and often is - depressing. I think my memory chooses to protect me against remembering much about all that. I guess it must do or else I'd probably never come back.

I think I saw this scene on black velvet at a craft fair once...

I think it's not insignificant that, in my first and only lengthy, successfully enjoyable run in WoW, I began in Ironforge and spent my formative first days in the snowfields. Partly it's that snowy zones are by some margin my favorite terrain, climate and geography in MMOs but more than that it's that pure blue-white snow doesn't suffer so badly from either the textural or tonal difficulties I find in almost all of Azeroth's other landscapes.

When I do take another pass at playing, Blizzard's famous polish never seems to extend to the patching process. Every time I come back after a break it's a struggle to get the game to run, even though I'm using the same installation on the same machine.

This time I had to uninstall and reinstall the Batlenet app and do a few more tweaks before the game would update. Once the patcher started to co-operate there turned out to be over 5GB of new files to install.

With that out of the way I logged into one of my under-20s, the Worgen Druid. It transpired I'd left off playing her exactly one quest short of the very end of her racial introduction, so as soon I'd sunk a battleship (or, more accurately, vaguely wandered about behind some NPCs who sunk a battleship for me) I was free to leave the dismal, dark, foreboding rainfields of wherever the heck it is that Worgen come from for the dismal, dark, brooding rainfields of that hideous Night Elf place I loathe.

I was not best pleased to find myself back in Teldrassil but I felt momentarily happy when the first quest I took suggested I leave: less so when I fell off a cliff and died on a tree a hundred meters below. Then ran back, revived, fell off the branch and died on another tree branch another hundred meters below. Then ran back, revived, fell off the branch and died on a third tree branch another hundred meters below the last one.

Just the footsteps in the snow feel somehow joyous.

Fourth fall I survived. Just. I made my way to the marker on the map. Aiming straight for it was what got me killed in the first place but I'm nothing if not stubborn. All of this in the dark and the rain of Azeroth's real-time night cycle, a peculiar design feature that means that historically most of my WoW playtime has taken place in poor lighting except at the weekends. Another reason I like the area around Don Morogh the best - the snow reflects what limited light there is.

The next quest marker pointed to the other side of the bay. I could see the town there from the dock where I was standing. Naturally I jumped in and began to swim only to be hit with Exhaustion half way across.

I understand the purpose of this notional barrier when it's employed to prevent players leaving the playable area or bypassing obstacles intended to be impassable but in this instance it seemed perverse. I was compelled to swim back to shore and go speak to some NPC who put me on a griffin, whereupon the griff flew me back along exactly the line I'd just swum to exactly the place I would have climbed out of the water had I been allowed to continue under my own steam.

By the time I finally spoke to the next questgiver I was so irritated that just the sight of the execrable font Blizzard insists on using, almost unreadable as it is against the equally awful mudded texture and color of the background, that I logged out to search for and reinstall the excellent Add On that replaces WoW's clunky, ugly front end with GW2's smooth and familiar UI.

It's behind you!

Come to think of it, I already had that Add On active last time I was playing so where did it go? Wherever it went I wish it hadn't because getting it back was another fiddly exercise that resulted in the Battlenet patcher demanding to re-download the exact same 5GB it had already installed not an hour earlier.

As I said, my regular experience playing WoW suggests the famous Blizzard "polish" is something that happens to other people. I've never known the game operate any more smoothly than any other MMO and less so than some.

Anyway, it's done now and I have the thing looking a lot like GW2, which is a big improvement. I'm considering whether I want to resub for a while and get some Legion done before it's quite literally last year's thing.

Legion aside, I would like to play my Gnome Hunter some more. She's still playable for free at level 20 but I daren't do anything with her lest she level up and become "Inactive". I'd be playing a Hunter in Legion, too, with my aforementioned level 95 Dwarf, although I suppose I could take the free Level 100 Demon Hunter and roll with that instead.

At the very least the colors are upbeat...

Chances are that I won't do either. I'll probably just footle around with the Worgen Druid - if I can move her to somewhere less utterly depressing - and maybe roll someone new as well. I'm not sure I can justify subbing if I can't find the time to play - but then I've been saying that for a year now.

I suspect the real drag anchor stopping me is strongly connected to the aforementioned issues with Lore and Look. Other than in the big, social events like Invasions, I mostly enjoy WoW in the low-to-mid levels. The higher up you get the more portentous the narrative becomes and, as Syp has often pointed out, in all MMOs, end-game zones tend to be ugly, so the game doubles down on the things I already most dislike about it.

Maybe I'll play my Panda. Wilhelm says the Pandaria zones are "excellent" and I trust his judgment on these things.

10 comments:

  1. My favorite expansion landscape is Mists of Pandaria, the art team hit the ball out of the park on that one! Blizz had some of the best folks doing their modeling, textures, animation, etc., IMHO. Unfortunately, that extends to the "inhospitable" zones, as you've observed the atmosphere in some of those zones can encourage one to seek greener pastures elsewhere. The demon infested zones on planet Argus are not enjoyable, to me.

    "Just the footsteps in the snow feel somehow joyous." I completely agree! While the male Gnomes can be a bit creepy at times, the female WoW Gnomes are my absolute favorite character race in any MMO, it's an automatic lift of the spirits when logging in. It's hard not to smile when playing my Gnome Hunter, for me. :)

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    1. I love the female gnome model and animation. The female goblin is excellent too. And I like my female Worgen, although mostly she goes around in cat form. It's very appaent that the artists always go for "cute" with the females of the shorter or weirder races whereas they go for threatening or creepy with the males.

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  2. With the introduction of level-scaling I will probably log in and glance at the game again, but I tend to enjoy taking games quest by quest, zone by zone, very slowly leveling and completing as much as I can. WoW really doesn't have very good individual quests, though.

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    1. Level scaling is going to be interesting - bit of a double-edged sword, that one. Not sure if I would rather have it or not, to be honest. As for quests, I was never very impressed with WoW's. They aren't terrible but they often outstay their welcome, sometimes by what feels like several hours.

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  3. Is it bad that I'm oddly pleased to hear that you can still fall to your death off Teldrassil? That used to be one of those memorable moments for young night elves, I'm surprised they haven't patched it out yet...

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    1. I nearly added a paragraph or two about WoW's death penalty but then I decided it might deserve a post on it's own. For all the talk about how super-easy WoW is these days, especially in the leveling game, it does retain a surprisingly old-school, not to say archaic approach to character death.

      I suppose in the interests of accurate reporting I ought to clarify that I didn't accidentally fall off Teldrassil. I came to the edge and stopped, looked down. decided "what the heck" and jumped off to see what would happen.

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  4. Totally agree about snow zones, they're the best. Something about the quiet and crisp air (even if imagined), and the soft crunch of your footsteps. The Highmountain zone in Legion is lovely, as is northern Howling Fjord in Northrend. Both Tauren zones - in fact search out any Tauren homelands in Warcraft and they tend to be pleasant. I'd vote their starting zone the most peaceful place in the game. Nagrand in old Outland is beautiful too, and most of Mists as others have said.

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    1. I noticed the crunch of the snow underfoot yesterday as I was taking the screenshot above. The Blizzard polish was in full effect there - it was astonishingly authentic. I agree on the Tauren starting area - it's delightful. I'll look out for those other recommendations too, if and when I get my higher level characters back in action.

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  5. You're bound to be the first person I've heard describe WoW's palette as "depressing." That's a new one.

    Anyway, something you might want to keep in mind is that in theory come patch 7.3.5 starter account characters will have access to the entirety of the old world via level-scaling. I say "in theory" because that's a huge amount of content to give to free players, and I wouldn't be shocked if they found some way to keep confining you to 1-20 zones, but based on our current understanding, that's how it should work.

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    1. Oh! That never occurred to me. It would certainly increase the variety but I guess you'd still be limited to 20 levels and then you'd go Inactive. Still, it'll be something new to try. I'll make a new character for that if I have time.

      And as for depressing - just look at the screenshots up there! I kn ow all of Azeroth isn't like that but a lot of it - and it never stops raining. Not that there's anything all that unusual about that - I could name huge areas of pretty much every MMO I've ever played that are dull, dark, dismal, dank, damp and depressing.

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