Friday, November 21, 2014

Panda Postmortem

Yes, it's going to get ugly.

Warlords of Draenor is here. We're done with Pandaria and I don't sense that it's a place I'll be terribly excited to revisit, unfortunately. I was trying to piece together why that was the other day and realized that I missed something Blizzard did last time around, which was a full-on public post-mortem of their work in Cataclysm. It was refreshingly honest and it was good to see how the company assessed their own work.

Well. if Blizzard isn't going to do the job this time, somebody has to. So, let's give it a go! I'm not sure that this can be comprehensive because there's so many aspects of the game, but here's a few thoughts all the same.

The World
Pandaria looked very pretty, really. The zones had some distinctiveness while still seeming to be a part of the same world. That said, I didn't feel that the continent had any particularly memorable sites.

(Haha... I just Googled "Pandaria Map" so I could have a reference to look at and it showed me Pandaria, in the Chhattisgarth province of India.)

Actually, that's not entirely true, I was moved by the view of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms with its Mogu architecture and spray of manicured trees, and that was destroyed.  Because I like it better before the Alliance and Horde have a battle there, I specifically stopped running through the full story in Jade Forest with my alts just so I never reached that part where the statue of the Xu'lon gets covered in sha goop.

I think a bigger problem with the settings was that none of it felt essential to the story. Jade Forest and the Valley of the Four Winds had some personality to them, but Kun-Lai Summit, Townlong Steppes, and Dread Wastes felt like one long slog of progressively uninspired waste.  I remember reading, before Pandaria came out, that "Kun-Lai Summit is 4 times bigger than the largest zone in Cataclysm." But didn't you notice how much completely empty space was in the Kun Lai region? And naming the tallest mountain "Mt. Neverest" and then putting nothing of any essential importance even near it was both boring and uninspired.

Analysis: I wish they'd stop making our factions trash some of the most beautiful settings the developers create. And they need to make the settings feel more essential. The best Cataclysm zones and just about the entire continent of Northrend were sterling examples of what Blizzard can do. They just have to hold themselves to it.

Raiding and Dungeons
In raids, Blizzard did a stronger job delivering interesting content than they did in Cataclysm. As a point of comparison, one should recall that almost the entire Heart of the Ancients raid was re-used settings with re-colored models of creeps we'd seen as bosses somewhere else before.

But they blew it for 5-man dungeons, which were neither plentiful enough, had sufficient challenge, nor included enough of an incentive to run them beyond the absolute minimum. Challenge modes may have worked for some people but by all accounts that was a terribly small number, and it seems very few were enthused about the "special transmog" sets of armor as rewards.

Scenarios... Ulf. I'm afraid I have to call this a loser too. There was even less incentive for running scenarios than there was to go into a 5-man. There were also so many things missing from scenarios. Like when one lousy member of your team flew into a rage for some reason and exited the instance, and there was no way to get a replacement. Honestly, I'm not sure if they even fixed that... I haven't been into a scenario for more than 18 months. Truthfully, I think one of scenarios biggest problems was that they were introduced by that "special" level-85 version of the doom of Theramore. That scenario was terrible besides being a poor excuse for an expansion event. I think it put a lot of players off the whole thing.

The dreaded Hole of Theramore. Dreaded because nobody wants to be there.
One variant on this though: the many different kinds of individual scenarios were pretty cool and made for unique and interesting play. Those can stay because they were story-oriented and designed to have a particular one-off goal and not repeated endlessly.

Analysis: with the complete LFR experience, Blizzard has every reason to pour their hearts and souls into good raiding experiences and I'd like to imagine that's going to continue. 5-Mans and Scenarios? I'm not sure what's going to happen there. But my trip to revamped Upper Blackrock Spire (/rolls eyes at "revamped") today, where I discovered they'd cut the instance down to about a third of its previous size, does not lead me to expect great things.

There are allegedly 10 new scenarios ready to roll out with WoD and I sort of get this. Blizzard can crank out scenarios much faster than other instances; all the art assets exist in the main world and it's got to be easier to balance around non-specific players than the holy trinity of tank, healer and dps. But I don't want those to substitute for end-game play again.

Greater Themes
Hrm... I've started to feel that "Pandaria" as a place and set of peoples and values and stuff was kind of a fake-out. The original Pandaria cinematic asked us the question, "Why do you fight?" suggesting that the Pandapeople had figured out better reasons to have a brawl than the Alliance or Horde people had. But that just wasn't true. The Pandapeople, led by their emperor Shaohao subsumed certain emotions so that they didn't bubble out and ... literally cause a demonic influence subsumed in their land to do the same. Although we trashed the place, it was our people who really helped the Pandas fix that problem permanently. So, I don't feel they really have much to teach us.

So, if Pandaria is a MacGuffin, what was the real story?  I guess that has to be Garrosh Hellscream. Thrall says he fought without honor. I say he was a psycho-hose beast.  Was he power-mad or was he behaving as a classic orc?

If we wanted to translate into modern terms, I think we could have a cautionary tale about the escalation and danger of weapons of mass destruction. Think about it: Garrosh's military career is all about the acquisition and implementation of dangerous magical artifacts to be used against his enemies.

But I'll say these things: Why is it that "Horde Unity" leads to gains on the political map of Azeroth while "Alliance Unity" leads only to shiny-happy togetherness feelings? Garrosh leads his people across most of Kalimdor and keeps it. The Alliance sacks Orgrimmar and GIVES IT RIGHT BACK so the Horde races can just keep on doing whatever it is they want to do.

I don't feel there were any substantial lessons to be learned. Maybe the most enlightening thing around was from that Pandaguy in the Tavern in the Mists who shouts down Wrathion at the end of the expansion, saying that the Horde and Alliance are stronger and better prepared because of each other. His analysis is that we'll all be more ready for the Burning Legion one day because we've ramped up in an arms race against each other.

New Stuff
Yes, Pandarens are the 5-year-old girls of Azeroth.
I'm still not a fan of the Pandapeople. The best races in Azeroth are odd combinations of societies that we're already familiar with. Like, the Night Elves... a matriarchal society, in touch with nature that has touches of Japanese and Western European influences in their architecture.  They have a fear of the arcane and have recently lost their racial immortality.   The Pandarens: talking animals that scoop up the most inescapable elements of any Asian culture you can think of and roll it all into a generic rice ball.

I was pleased with monks, however. I levelled two monks through Pandaria and tried all three speccs. Tanking with a monk was a hoot. Hitting things for dps was great as well. I thought both these speccs were fun and refreshing and original.

My only disappointment is with the mistweaver.  Try as hard as I could, I couldn't make the healing version of the monk produce hps that could stand alongside other healers I've tried. The final straw was really going to Icy-Veins and reading up their strategies. But the web of priorities and buffs they presented to keep active was far too complicated for me to manage.  It was kind of a disappointment in that I had such excitement for the idea of a melee healer. I'm sure that some players somewhere made the mistweaver pay off in raids. But I couldn't get it to go.

Final Thoughts
Well, it's over.

I have written that there is no crushing reason that we have to save the world every single time we go out on a new Warcraft campaign. That was part of Cataclysm's problem: that they had to up the ante after the Lich King, and Deathwing suffered in comparison to Arthas.

Mists of Pandaria didn't give us a last-ditch mobilization to save the world. And I liked that. This felt like a big character development episode though. Jaina Proudmoore turns all HARDCORE! Garrosh Hellscream makes his power play. Vol'jin gets to lead his family. Varian sorta gets his act together and leads the Alliance. Wrathion tries to manipulate the world into what he thinks it needs and gets only so far. But by the end of the expansion, all these pieces are back in play again with no long-lasting resolution. I dunno what Jaina is up to, other than getting shown up by Khadgar at this point. Hellscream is one of the primary antagonists again in Warlords. Most of the rest of the world leaders seem to be sitting it out for now.

The realms of Pandaria were needed to have a "neutral" ground to play out the war between the Horde and Alliance, but most of the trappings of that place felt like only confection. I think Blizzard's creativity failed them in creating a really resonant world this time around and I wish they had attempted more than "The Asian Expansion."

And now, we're off to Draenor!


  1. generic rice ball, nice mental image.
    I also stopped doing the Statue of Xu'lon. It was to depressing. Plus, I gathered jade to help build the damn thing.
    However, the biggest disappointment was getting exalted with the insects in Dread Wastes. They take me down into a hidden cave & I get told that, because I was so helpful, they won't kill me when they take over the world. WHAT. Makes me want to find some DDT afterall.

  2. I liked the Klaxxi. It was such a different sort of rep run with their derision. I do wish, though, that I could have gotten a Klaxxi mount like that one who always carried me into battle.