Sunday, December 4

World of Warcraft Patch 4.3 Impressions

It's rather fitting that the story arc of the new raid and two of the three new five-man dungeons in World of Warcraft's Patch 4.3 focus so heavily on Northrend. While the supporting characters you encounter consist of a warchief turned hippie and a dragon with anger management issues instead of a madman with a cool sword, the ease with which you can clear the content and snatch up rewards leaves a distinct aftertaste of Wrath of the Lich King. In fact, if anything, it's easier. Already the mad dragon Deathwing -- the so-called Destroyer, the feared Worldbreaker -- lies dead on many servers (at least in his normal version). Even casually organized groups are plowing through endgame raid content, thanks to the new Looking for Raid tool. It's all good content, to be sure. But is it good enough to serve as an alternative to the attraction of Star Wars: The Old Republic in a couple of weeks?

So that's where the snows of yesteryear went.

Patch 4.3 represents a valiant effort on Blizzard's part. Even if the three new five-man dungeons aren't particularly challenging -- gone, for instance, are the coordination-based encounters such as Corla in Blackrock Caverns -- they're drenched in the kind of exciting lore that many of the game's players have always found fascinating. The first one, End Times, presents an alternate future in which Deathwing has wiped out all life on Azeroth, and his rotting corpse lies atop the ruins of Wyrmrest Temple. Players have to fight two random "echoes" of pivotal figures from the game's lore (such as Sylvanas Windrunner or Tyrande Whisperwind), each with their own mini-zone, before a fun but gimmicky faceoff with Murozond, a corrupted version of one of the normally buddy-buddy dragons from the game's past.

The next instance, The Well of Eternity, takes players 10,000 years into the past, where they get to rub shoulders with Illidan Stormrage and Queen Azshara in a time before much of the world went off the deep end, so to speak. It's a beautiful instance, and the chance to see the first invasion of The Burning Legion and the old Highborne kingdom in its glory should please even the most jaded Warcraft veterans. And finally, in the Hour of Twilight, players join Thrall in a current-day march on Wyrmrest Temple that serves as a prelude to the new endgame raid, Dragon Soul. Much like Wrath of the Lich King's dungeons, WoW's new offerings are fast-paced experiences that take around 30 minutes to complete, which marks a far cry from the challenging, lengthy dungeons that defined Cataclysm's release. And, aside from some rather meager gear requirements, they're refreshingly accessible.

In Azeroth, fashion doesn't change much in 10,000 years.

The Looking For Raid tool, however, pushes accessibility to its limits. Designed to let a random group of 25 players experience the same content that only better-organized groups normally get to see (and at the same time), the Looking For Raid tool dumps its players into easier versions of the current raids -- including Dragon Soul. Easy is the operative word here. If you've ever jumped into a random group that was running an outdated raid from a previous expansion, either for loot or mere achievement points, then you already have some idea of what to expect in the raids you'll find yourself in. Most bosses fall over with only a minimum nod to strategy (even if some players aren't familiar with the fight), and it's possible to survive some of the encounters just by making sure you stay out of the gunk that the bosses throw out every now and then.

Keep in mind that this is fresh, two-day-old end-game content we're talking about, not out-leveled raids from two expansions ago. This is happening with players who have no connection to one another. In my own experience, I jumped into the Raid Finder five different times and killed seven bosses across two characters, and only once did I see an entire group fall before a boss. It's hard to imagine this being fun for long. While guilds seeking a challenge and better gear can still run the content on normal and heroic versions, I wonder if it holds the same attraction anymore in light of the Raid Finder versions. But even on the normal modes, it's clear that the old days of guilds battling against each other for first kills over weeks or months are almost at an end. Already hundreds of guilds have downed the normal version of Deathwing, who never quite reached the awesomeness level of Arthas despite shattering a good chunk of the world. And now, with much of Azeroth using him as a punching bag, he seems like little more than Blizzard's red-scaled stepchild.

Back in the day, seeing a dead dragon on display was a pretty big deal.

Yet Patch 4.3 isn't just about raid and dungeon content. It also introduces some the game's first real cosmetic gear options in the form of the Transmogrification service. Essentially, if you already own a certain piece of older gear with an awesome model, you can transmogrify your existing gear to look like the older item for a small fee. Not only does this allow you to ditch a current tier's appearance if you dislike it, but it has some unexpected gameplay benefits as well. Call me shallow, but I've found a new love for playing my warrior alt simply because I can outfit him in the badass Viking-styled armor from Wrath of the Lich King instead of the dorky quest gear I've amassed on the way to 85. Some players have expressed their distaste that they can't transmogrify the look of a plate item so it looks like a cloth item, but I, for one, don't really care to see a warrior tanking the Worldbreaker in a wedding dress. Couple Transmogrification with a "Void Storage" option -- it acts as a safe deposit box of sorts for rarely used gear -- and it's clear Patch 4.3 offers some pleasing additions that probably should have made their appearance years ago.

But for all the promise that the content brings, however, I can't help but feel that the novelty of this feature-packed content update might wear off even before Star Wars: The Old Republic makes its appearance in less than two weeks. While the instances are all fun in a way that other Cataclysm instances never quite managed, they're all just a little too easy. Even now, not even a week into the patch, I find myself a little bored by the thought of jumping into the LFR tool and attempting some more raids outside of my guild. In the end, 4.3 might bring back some of the legions of players who left in the wake of Cataclysm. It's hard to imagine breezy content like this being able to weather the months of waiting between now and the release of Mists of Pandaria. Unless they crank up the difficulty a notch or two, the very players they win back might head to other potentially satisfying worlds without regret, and sooner than expected.

As to where? I hear Korriban is lovely this time of year.

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