Friday, October 10, 2014

Battlepet Blitz!

...and what's with the all-mechanical line-up here, anyway?
I think the bandicoon has got this one.

It's about two years since Pet Battles came along. How are they doing on the eve of Warlords of Draenor?

I'm pretty sure if you go back into my archives at this site, you'd find that I was a skeptic of this pet battles. Pokewow, I'm sure I called it, and didn't see a lot of value in co-opting a Nintendo game into WoW in the first place. 

Well, I stand corrected on that. It was good, mostly-mindless fun for those long waits between raids or whatever other downtime you're experiencing. I think I've enjoyed pet collecting more than pet battling, per se, but the whole thing was more entertaining than I ever expected. God help you if you're OCD though.

The Warlords of Draenor battle pets model has no significant changes to the system. There's a bevy of new pets, some things to do in your garrison and the new black market auction house will have rare pets that you might not have found in Pandaria. But the basic model of getting your pets to level 25 and then going out to beat up some trainers continues with no respite. Right now, there's no sign of a new Celestial Tournament, but you've got to believe that it will be a feature of patch 6.X announced at some point in the future.

As far as I'm concerned, this is just fine. I do wish they'd consider some refinements however:

Master Trainers, a Little Too Spread Out
One of the main things most battlers wanted to get done in MoP was a routine thrashing of the master trainers who offered regular pet supply drops. But, with one on each continent, truthfully, that could take up some serious travel time. I solved this problem for a while by stationing various alts at the trainers, whose jobs were to sit there and challenge the trainer each day. But that really only worked so long as I didn't have anything else for the alts to do.

It would be nice...nay, convenient, if the representative masters of each continent were to convene in one place so they could cough up their loot. Maybe they're having their own little tournament. Even if it were in some completely absurd location like the deep trenches of Vashj'ir, then at least I could get away with stationing one alt instead of five for these duties. 

Some Way to Obtain Specific Battle Stones
This became a serious point of order for me: No pet to battle unless it was of rare quality. This meant repeatedly challenging wild pets until the blue quality specimen showed his face. This meant weeks and months of waiting to get a stone I could apply to some favorite pet that only comes in uncommon quality. 

Yes, this can be done at the Celestial Tournament, but I'll be back to the problem with that in a moment. The problem was that there was no even semi-reliable source for these items. You might have read comments that battling a particular type of pet was more likely to make it drop that type of battle stone, but when those pets only ever dropped anything 0.1% of the time anyway, that doesn't count as reliable. Was it going to break the game to make these items a little more obtainable?

I have read that the new battle stones that quickly level your pet to 25 will be attached to some currency in WoD, but meh. I can level my Tranquil Mechanical Yeti to level 25 by myself. What I can't do is make him tougher than uncommon quality.

It should be noted that the Flawless Battle Stone is not soulbound and does turn up in the auction house, but not frequently enough and not at a price that is...practical for any regular use.

Pets Need to be Creative

duck, duck, goose!
These are not very creative
Have you noticed how many battle pets in your collection are just mini-versions of a regular mob or a boss that you had to deal with in the game. Particularly... every single one of the battle pets to be farmed out of a raid?

How about that you could capture an Alpine Foxling for yourself and then go snatch an Alpine Foxling Kit right after that. And let me assure you (since I don't know if my Wowhead links are going to work to just show this to you) that these two pets are exactly the same in every way.  And they are both the same powers as the Fox Kit I got from Tol Barad back in the day. Don't get me started on what's the difference among the 15 different snakes I have.

No, don't ask me how she can see anything.
That's right! Who's a cute widdle
harbinger of doom? Aaawww!

I get that the developers wanted to make an extensive list of pets, but these foxes are just ballast on the list for the most part. As for re-using art assets in miniature, I'm not crazy about it, but it doesn't always live up to its hype. My favorite pets are a) rare b) do cool stuff and c) have a unique model. A great example of one of my favorites would have to be the Unborn Val'kyr. I'd love to see more pets designed that way.

Pet Battles Could Look and Play Better
I haven't seen this in writing, so I'll say it now: The battle-pet minigame itself is fairly poor.

The animations look half-baked. The pacing of the rounds feels sluggish. Some of the abilities just take too long to play out. I often feel like I'm going to get lulled into a coma watching a third wave of rodents swarm across the screen-- especially when I finished that rodent off earlier in the round and it's down. The pet battle system we have is not Blizzard doing its best work. There's a lot that is pretty good but much that feels slapped together.

What to do about it? Argh. I don't know. I think the depth of change needed to improve this system is huge but I don't want developers working on that and not new content. This is not a make or break thing in the end, I guess. But think about it: if this were removed to be a standalone activity and it looked and played like it does now, would that be acceptable?

The Celestial Tournament
Ach. And this brings us to the big one. Stop me if you've heard this before:

Ah! Run away! Run for your very lives!
It's not too late. Just click Cancel.
I brought my 65 rare, level 25 pets down to the Celestial Tournament. Throughout my pet battling experience, I felt distinctly competent. 65 pets at max level is no mean feat! I have a good variety and I'd beaten every feature they'd given us thus far.  This should be exciting, I thought.

Aaaaand, I got my butt kicked. by every one of the first trainers you can fight. Undaunted, I sat down, and looked at the oppositions' abilities and looked through my pet army for counters to that, and I tried a few different combinations. And I got my butt kicked again. It was just ugly.

I left the instance, healed the 30-35 pets I'd gotten killed in my first foray, came back in, and looked again. And I compared all the abilities again and lined up a few more options. And well, it wasn't as bad this time. I drew blood, but basically... I still got my butt kicked.

And now I went to saying to myself, "I need a critter pet who can deliver bonus damage with a humanoid ability against this opposition. Haha! Ok, I'll go out and capture one of those and level him up to 25. And I need..."

So during the next week, I took a list of about 6 different pets I thought would make key differences in specific fights against specific opposition and I caught rare versions of them, and I leveled them to 25. And I came back to the Tourney next week and... it was a whole different set of trainers, with new pets. I said, "I can do this." And I could. I could get my butt kicked all over again.

It was at this point that I left the Celestial Tournament instance and haven't been back for more than a year.

It's good to make the pinnacle of the feature's experience in the expansion a "challenge" and all, but the Celestial Tournament is overturned to the point that it's frustrating. 

There are people who have done the tournament. This, I know. And there are guides you can obtain to winning at the celestial tournament. Just recently because I was thinking of my end-of-expansion bucket list, I went looking at one of these guides, particularly, Zagam's Celestial Tournament Guide at Icy Veins

One of these things I've noticed with seeking Internet help to a pet battle is that it seems like each poster is trying to show off by recommending the most exotic and rare pets they can come up with to beat a boss.  Which is to say, they are nearly useless in reality. Zagam is not like this however. His is one of the more moderate guides in that the pets he recommends are mostly readily obtainable. There are a few exceptions to that, still. A rare Tranquil Mechanical Yeti, which does not exist in nature (you have to hit it with a Battle Stone), for example. Or the suggestion of L'il Tarecgosa, which is only available as a very special reward when your guild completes a legendary weapon in Cataclysm.

Everywhere you look for advice on the Celesial Tournament, is a similar refrain: "You don't need a lot of pets, just the right pets." The real problem with the Celestial Tourney is that Zagam recommends 27 pets for your army. I have 65 pets ready to go, but there was only a 22% overlap between my pets and "the right pets."

There is only one conclusion to this: the Celestial Tournament is overtuned. After all the time I spent leveling 65 different pets, I only have a 22% readiness? And I had to go to a third-party web site to even determine that fact?  Bleah!.

I will bring this back just a little: I think with additional research, I might find suitable substitutes for a few more of the "right pets" in my army. But that's a research project unto itself. And when I made a to-do list to get ready for another attempt at the Celestial Tournament, the only thought I had about that was, "No. I don't think I'm going to do all this."

But What's Good?
I think I started off this commentary saying that I like pet battles, but only gave fairly lukewarm praise. So I want to bring this all to a close with some high points: Up until the Celestial Tournament, I really liked the balance of the pet battles. I liked coming up with the right combination of pets to take on each challenge. I keep a notebook near the computer where I write these down along with any particular instructions to how I win a fight.

I like that each pet can have it's own name and while a few keep their originals, and a few of them get named early on, I sort of have a naming ritual I perform when my pet hits level 25. Naming my pets has taken on personal significance. Sometimes, names are just silly like my Fel Flame name Phil Flamé. But then there's my Terrible Turnip named after a student I taught a few years ago.

I really like the Pandaren elementals and made sure to get them all. Picture me camped at Pi'ju Village for more than a week to acquire a Skunky Alemental. Yes, that happened.

The fun for me is in the details, and the collecting is probably more important than the fighting. Actually, it's a lot more important. I think if the actual battles were paced better I'd have 165 pets to level 25 by now. It's probably a little sad, how I set out at times to specifically level up a pet and 10 minutes in, I'm going, "Hey! Ore!" or "Ooh, look, rarespawn!" or "My dog needs a walk!"

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