Content Sync and Warlords of Draenor

Fun. It’s an often thrown-about buzzword in gaming circles; if something is fun, you want to play it, and the opposite goes if something is not fun. This is hard to put in words, though, and in a game as big and complex as World of Warcraft, something being ‘fun’ isn’t simply it. It needs to be worth your time, especially given the importance of time and progression to endgame content.

Progression is something I can more easily quantify. As much as we may claim not to be particularly interested, near-enough everyone will be happy to get a new piece of gear and to see their stats inch higher and higher, patch-on-patch, and though there is a certain endless loop in constantly improving gear to improve gear, the concept of progression is one that it is easy to subscribe to, particularly in PvE content.

So why is some of the content in Draenor regarded so poorly, especially when it seems like a perfect answer to the complaints raised about Mists of Pandaria’s content? For me, at least, it comes down to the content being in sync – that is to say, it all fulfils similar roles, and thus it’s easily-exchangeable and everyone is able to do something that they like. This is perhaps one of the saving graces of Mists – when the content was eventually smoothed out, the playing field was very level, and regardless of what you wanted to do, it would all get you to the same place. It’s a lot harder to say that about Warlords, so I’m going to explore the content of endgame and see what works well and what does not, especially in comparison to past expansions.

Dungeons

The dungeons of Warlords are fairly varied; they involve bosses with challenging tactics, new locations and old locations, and some fun scripting and references. Croman and Leeroy were interesting experiments with content, but dungeons feel lacking. They continue, at least to me, to feel lacking. There was far more impetus to run dungeons in Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm, and they offered a lot more in terms of progression. We’re at neither the high-grind of mid-Cataclysm, nor the faceroll of late-Wrath. We’re in between, but everything aside from boss fights feels rather grindy. Trash is not threatening, but it is everywhere, and it is a fight for the sake of fighting. Dungeons need to be more dynamic and interesting, and there need to be fewer fights that serve nothing except being a roadblock to the good parts.

Conversely, no one wants to return to the no-trash one-room feel of 3.2’s dungeons – with regard to Timewalking, I have seen several comments that the older dungeons are simply more enjoyable. Whether it is their greater simplicity or the nostalgia factor, dungeons in the past two expansions have been less well-received than older ones. Aside from trash, the complexity of 5-man encounters is also irritating. These bosses are on a level par with Raid Finder content in terms of tactics, yet they require far more personal effort due to the smaller group size. The addition of a Mythic mode to dungeons is, in my opinion, not going to make these dungeons any more replayable – why do we need a fourth dungeon difficulty? Weren’t challenge modes meant to do last expansion what Mythic modes are now here for? Mythic modes – like I would argue with heroic scenarios – represent not a desire for greater difficulty, but a failure to properly tailor difficulty to reward.

The removal of the justice and valor points systems made dungeons much more rewarding for progression in Mists, Cata and Wrath; this system no longer exists. Dungeons would be far more attractive if they allowed you to purchase gear higher than the dungeon itself can offer. Furthermore, the issue of ‘Mythic dungeons’ is that in previous expansions, this place of ‘higher loot’ would not be served by retuning dungeons, but by adding new ones. Mists of Pandaria failed to add new dungeons in post-launch content, and so far, so has Warlords. This lack of an easier method to gear-up has led to the necessity of upping item levels on raid gear several times now, because no one has a way to gear up in dungeons anymore.

In summary, dungeons are no longer a worthwhile method of progression. Their difficulty is incorrect given their group size; their loot is not worthwhile; they are no longer the catch-up mechanism (that spot was taken by Raid Finder); there is no points system to allow for faster gearing through dungeons; despite fantastic zones, incredible scope and unique boss fights, their content is not engaging due to the growing length of uninteresting trash fights.

If Blizzard want to make dungeons more on-par with raiding for helping progression, gear needs to be better and drop more frequently, justice and valor points need reinstating as a catch-up method, bosses need to stop getting more complicated, trash needs to be kept at a suitable minimum to ensure dungeons aren’t a massive time sink, and in general a way of making these dungeons just plain interesting on their own merit needs including. Have gated story related to the dungeons – they could easily be a storytelling mechanism, but consistently – with bosses like Teron Gorefiend, Ner’zhul, etcetera – they are instead used to fruitlessly cut stories short for good.

Raids

I will freely admit that, as someone who doesn’t raid outside of Raid Finder, I have no comment on whether normal and above raids are properly tuned or interesting. What I do know is there weren’t enough.

It is not just the scenery but the progression that matters when you have multiple raids. If you have more than one raid, it is easier to swap around and gear up elsewhere when you’re stuck on a singular boss. It is also more fun, because you’re not staring at the same patch of lava every time you zone in.

Let’s cut the crap here. Blackrock Foundry was tier 2 of this expansion and Hellfire Citadel is tier 3. Highmaul, as an entry raid, was not enough. Both it and the Foundry had too many bosses in one instance to keep things interesting for a long period of time. It was criminal that there was no Titan-related raid, no Apexis or Arakkoa-related raid (A freaking SKY-TEMPLE, people) and even if there is another raid, it’s not going to be a fun side-jaunt, and it’s certainly not going to be Ulduar. It’s going to be another Ruby Sanctum.

In terms of progression, raiding has actually done well. Aside from a complete misjudgement of what item levels would be needed by Blizzard on a few occasions, Raid Finder content has been probably the most successful way to gear up and progress. The issue with that is that all raid content still has the re-roll tokens. I don’t really care what name they have; their continued existence is a damning failure of the RNG system in this game and a sign that drop rates on all raid content need improving.

As for story, the raids haven’t been brilliant, but they haven’t been terrible. There has been far less Cho-exposition, which means we have a chance to discover things for ourselves; but there has been far less to discover. The ogre Breakers were explained in a short story, rather than in Highmaul. Cho’gall’s plot death was not included in any difficulty except Mythic – a terrible omission of a story which played a gripping role in Nagrand, and ultimately leaves the Pale storyline without a resolution many players will see. Kargath’s death made no sense – why weren’t we fighting the two ogre-lords who’d overseen the Ring of Trials and the Highmaul Coliseum? Why did they just let us waltz in?

Blackrock Foundry was coherent, but not exactly thrilling. There was no new lore to discover, not many fun mechanics, and some things that made no sense (why was Gruul there except to reuse mechanics? Why did we kill Oregorger when the goren were damaging the Iron Horde? Why was Kromog on their side if we own the Heart of the Magnaron?) There was only one lore character in the raid, and it was Blackhand – the raid had nothing to stand on lore-wise outside of him. At the very least, the bosses should have appeared in the Pit at some point. Blackhand’s floor mechanic was the most interesting thing about the place, in my opinion.

I have no comment on Hellfire Citadel because of its release schedule; I won’t get to kill Archimonde until late August. That’s really unnecessary gating. I’m going to have cleared the first wing what, 7 times by then? I’ll be burning out by then!

On the whole, raids have not been at any historic low; they have not improved from Mists of Pandaria or Cataclysm at all, though.

Scenarios

This will be a quick one, because there were no scenarios. All the hype in Mists of Pandaria, all the talk about how quick they are to produce, and we got none at endgame. They were used in questing a little, but not much.

The garrison invasions are sort of a scenario, but they’re not exactly the most intriguing content, and the reward is based on how well you do, which doesn’t lend itself well to progression.

Scenarios should absolutely have been used. After their role in gearing was smoothed out during MoP (and that was expected due to it being a new content form) they should have featured in Warlords extensively. The story would have been better and the gearing would have been better. It’s a complete failure that there were none.

Questing

Apexis dailies. I will shudder every day at the thought of doing them. Their mechanics were too close to 5.4 – do what you want and something will eventually happen. Compared to the rich and successful levelling questing, this was a left-field blow that really has put me off the game. There is absolutely no guidance – and the 5 whole dailies of 6.2 are little better, especially as they involve you doing three apexis-style areas.

This was a complete overreaction to Mists’ early daily content, which was also a complete overreaction to Cataclysm’s. Blizzard seems to do this a lot.

Questing should be fairly exploratory and random with a central strand to guide you; not a railroad, not a desert. There should be clear objectives rather than vague ones, but they shouldn’t be on the micro level of three felfighters, two felbreakers and one felweaver. I, personally, would rather the model of ‘get all these quests at once and do them’ than ‘do two at a time until you hit the boss’, but both work better than whatever happened to the Warlords content cycle.

I will never forgive the fact that we spent a year in Siege and the Timeless Isle with no content for THIS. Since 5.1, the biggest voice I have heard from people is that that was the best daily questing model – Blizzard seems to not want to hear it.

Questing needs to be dynamic, engaging and play a role in the story and the factions it involves. It did not at all.

Reputation

I shouldn’t have to separate this from dungeons and questing. Here we are.

Reputation failed this expansion. It was too grindy, it did not tie into progression in a meaningful way, and the easiest faction was the PvP one (something I have never said before and never intended to say).

Having one grind-only faction was bad enough in 5.4; having the majority be grind-only has almost killed my love for filling up bars.

The mounts erred on the side of too expensive. There needs to be championing again, and not once every 5 weekends. Give us tabards or dungeons with rep gains permanently. It will incentivise dungeons. Give reputations decent gear for gearing up and they will incentivise rep-gaining. Reputation needs to be a path for alternate progression again. And make them cost gold. I do not want to pay 80000 crystals for a BELT.

I’m fine with multiple ways to gain rep. Let one faction be the grindy-one, and one a turn-in one, but please let them all have quests and storyline and multiple ways to gain rep. I shouldn’t have to grind for hours in this game. It’s 2015.

Garrisons

And at last we come to this.

Garrisons were a terrible idea that have gone against everything Blizzard wanted to promote. People stay here instead of going out into the world, people rely on them for gold and professions and gear instead of the content pre-established for this, and they just don’t serve a purpose.

Missions are something I should be doing. Give me mission scenarios where I go and do them instead. Halve the reward, I don’t care. I want to do it. The treasure missions have sped up inflation but I still don’t have an inn to access them, so the inflation is just hitting me harder.

The profession buildings have brought the slow crisis of outdated professions to a head. Now you can stay inside one building and farm up 700 levels of a profession you’re not going to use the first 699 of. Professions need a fundamental and complete revamp and they need one now. We can’t have a third expansion of fast-level bandaids.

The shipyard was such a good opportunity. Wasted. This is the equivalent of my followers perma-dying if they failed a mission. I don’t need another resource to waste on things, I don’t need missions that take THREE DAYS and still might FAIL. It should have been travelling Draenor and cool encounters and charting the seas and story and instead we got another mission table.

Please never include garrisons in this way again. Give me a ship and make me sail it. Everywhere. Make me responsible for my success, not randomly-generated numbers and icons.

In summation, the content in Warlords is out of sync totally and completely. Raids are the only good way to gear up, there is no incentivising of reputation or dungeons or leaving your garrison that brings them up to a par with raids for progressing. There haven’t been nearly enough fixes, and the radio silence of Blizzard on these issues since Siege was released is not inspiring confidence. It is not surprising to see that three million players have quit; I didn’t play between finishing my 6.1 legendary chain and 6.2’s release. I’m four days in to the patch and I’m not enthusiastic about anything except Yrel. I can’t even play the raid for weeks.

If blizzard wants to fix it, they have to tell us what they’re doing. They have to communicate more. Or people will turn off.

World Events and You: Grind or Go Home

WoW’s holiday events come round once each per year – a period of anytime between a weekend and a month in which the whole game has decorations, fun NPCs pop up in capital cities and limited-time quests and events can be embarked on at all levels for costumes, mounts, pets and toys. A fun time for all.

Except when it’s not. And recently, it’s become less and less fun.

The first time I noticed that a world event was less a fun, unique occasion was 2014’s Day of the Dead. Usually a caricature on the Latin American Dia de los Muertos, this year’s weekend-long festival included new content and achievements: several costumes at 100g each which transformed you into a colourful celebrant. The achievements?

Kill 1, 20 and 50 people also wearing the costumes.

I would have been content enough had the achievement been just to buy a costume, but I attempted it anyway – and did not get a single kill after half an hour of farming in the Stormwind City graveyard.

Needless to say, I gave up. It was not worth the stress, the endless time spent as a ghost, or the repair costs. It was definitely not fun and it did not involve much of me celebrating the dead, more cursing my own death.

This behaviour was mirrored by the inclusion in 2015 of new Love is in the Air content – namely a prism of love, costing 40 tokens, and an achievement to have 50 stacks of the buff it gives you.

I similarly attempted this achievement, and after spending 2 hours in a group, it collapsed before my turn. In fact, it collapsed less than halfway to my turn. It was again, not fun, and I don’t think it was much in the spirit of things.

So I question why on earth an achievement wants me to spend so long on it during a time of festivity?

It seems completely at odds with the traditional view of world events in WoW – low-intensity, lots of fun items to share with your friends, and the occasionally challenging – but by no means impossible – achievement. No world event content has before been so mind-numbing as to force me to stand in a circle, pressing one button every minute, for hours.

It beggars belief, and it cannot be allowed to continue. I am fairly confident that Blizzard has their own metrics that’ll show just how engaged people are with this content, but if this is the way it’s going to be, then I’ll just stop doing holiday content. I refuse to do content that isn’t fun.

There are, of course, other ways they could re-tune these holidays to have a festive rather than a grindy spirit. Calavera, for example, could instead of killing 50 people, be killing 5 – 1 of each colour of costume. They Really Love Me could involve various coloured beams instead of just pink, and require you to be under the effects of each colour beam.

Either achievement could have you do it to different races or classes, in different locales. This would be far more in tune with what holiday content usually involves.

But it does not. And it’s for that reason that, until it’s changed, I’m going to opt out of holiday content. Because it doesn’t make me want to celebrate whatever occasion it is. It makes me detest it.

Into the Wilds: WoD Questing Review, Part 2

I feel like talking some more about the WoD questing model, so I’ve done a little on the middle zones, Gorgrond and Talador. I found enjoyable, and they both really seemed to recapture the old feeling of ‘you have multiple areas to go’ that was a real railroading problem through Cata and Mists. The fact that you’re no longer pointed towards a specific quest helps a lot, though I felt it meant the conclusion to Gorgrond lacked cohesion in tying everything together.

Gorgrond

Going into Gorgrond, I felt… a sense of trepidation. It was, from first glance, completely different to the Blade’s Edge of old, and I wondered how Blizzard could tie it together. They did brilliantly. Gorgrond, more than anything, embodies the ‘savage’ persona that Blizzard has been hammering us with for the last year, and it actually makes sense without being offensive in this zone. It comprises an elaborate and subtle story of a civil war, effectively, between the creatures of the wild forests – genesaur, ancients, botani and their creations; and the beasts of the earth – gronn, ogron, goren and all they command. In this ancient land, we are thrown into this war and left to do as best we can. The Iron Horde takes a significant backseat as the struggle for resources really comes into play.

Alliance-side, I loved the storylines of the Rangari and the Thorium Brotherhood in this zone. The dwarves and the draenei play off each other well, and their struggle to find their missing troops and complete the objectives they are there to do is well-structured. The fantastic landscape goes well with the questing, although Yrel and Maraad perhaps sit back too much. Thaelin and Rangari Kaalya were stand-out characters in the Alliance questline and I hope we’ll be seeing them again. On the side of the Horde, the Laughing Skull provided interesting, if a bit one-dimensional characters who just really loved bones. While there were probably better clans to ally with (given how the Laughing Skull consisted of around four orcs at this point) they were a good laugh. And the Crimson Fen, on both factions, was exceptionally creepy.

I was originally going to criticise the inordinate amount of giant elite monsters compared to the prior zones – but I realise that it makes complete sense. Gorgrond is ancient and unknown, and it’s also heavily suggested to be Titan-related  – it needs guardians, and the mysterious ancient giants and genesaur that patrol the land provide an interesting perspective. I loved the fact that, unlike some past zones where the Horde and Alliance have achieved the exact same thing, here the Horde gained an artefact for controlling the magnaron, and the Alliance one for the genesaur. It adds an interesting twist, and as with the capture of the power of the Mogu in 5.2, I hope it’ll be referenced again.

My main criticism would be the finale of Gorgrond’s main questlines. While we spend a lot of time on the wilds of Gorgrond, the Iron Horde are rather irrelevant until the final quests – and they end very anti-climactically. The artefact is damaged beyond use, we kill another Son of Gronn – but why? What’s the point of the Iron Approach? We destroy the Iron Docks in the dungeon and the rest of the fleet goes to attack Talador. Was it a failure? I feel much like we did at the end of Vashj’ir – you’re not sure if you’ve won or you’ve lost – and ultimately, you have to work it out from what you do next.

Talador

Upon entry to Talador, the music was vivid and beautiful. It’s easily the best music of the expansion that I’ve heard so far. The music matches the landscape perfectly. The autumnal and earthy colours are different from Terokkar, yet the landscape is similar, and I like the way – much like with Shadowmoon and Gorgrond – that there is a hint of what will one day be Outland, but it’s something much deeper.

I’d like to know who had creative jurisdiction over naming my outpost ‘Fort Wrynn’. It’s not my own preferred choice, I have to say. I was not expecting Zangarra at all – and Khadgar being angry at Jaina is quite funny (though where she gets off on calling me an outsider after I helped purge her city and steal Lei Shen’s power for her, I do not know). Maraad is also kinda starting to grate on me, Alliance-side. Why did we take the most violent of the Vindicators with us? Seriously, first he starts beating up the homeless in Azuremyst, and now he’s advocating for genocide against the orcs. You’ve seen where that goes, buddy. It’s not somewhere to go. Horde-side, the questing was again very well-done, and I loved seeing Liadrin make an appearance. I was a bit confused to see Durotan referring to Orgrim with more affection than, you know, his actual brothers – considering Orgrim is with Blackhand, and we’ve seen nothing of him in this timeline, it came out of the blue. The absence of Thrall was also a relief.

I found the various draenei areas I went to very interesting – but each time, I felt as though it was a little short. Admittedly, everything was very dramatic – the Iron Horde was attacking and we needed to move fast – but I thought Talador was a lot shorter than Gorgrond. Tuurem, Telmor and Shattrath were all done with in a handful of quests. Still, that doesn’t detract from the fact that I loved seeing all the areas of Outland in this form.

Again, Blizzard have outdone themselves with Auchindoun and Shattrath – and again, I feel like they really go underused. It’s a pity, but there’s not much to be done about it now. However, I suppose there’s only so much story you can fit into one area. Talador definitely was a good zone, but I feel like it was missing something – there’s conflict in a great many areas and little to tie them together. You just appear to be playing whack-a-mole. Another criticism: Both my Alliance and Horde mains did not get the ‘Establishing your Outpost’ checkpoints – and I have no idea why. It needs fixing, but it was the only bug I came across here.

The final quest, if over a little fast, led into an absolutely fantastic cutscene. I loved how Yrel and Durotan teamed up against Blackhand (especially notable is how they co-opt each other’s weaponry), and I like seeing that the faction differences are lessening due to the necessity of co-operation in Draenor. Maraad’s death was.. poignant. I’m still not sure whether it was our Maraad, but it was a noble sacrifice. The triumph of Blizzard’s cutscenes is really stellar here – you can lip-read Khadgar at this point, which shows how far cutscenes have come since Wrath. The final battle was climactic and well-done. Talador was, all in all, a triumph.

A Remarkable Thing: Early WoD Questing Review

A remarkable thing happened last night while I was getting ready for bed.

I felt excited for what was to come in the day to follow – and excited to play Warlords of Draenor. I can’t exactly say why, and I still have some critiques, but the storyline has so far been engaging.

In an expansion where I’ve struggled more than any other to build up excitement, to the point of not caring when I actually installed it, I think this is a good thing, and it says a lot about just how well-crafted lots of the story in Draenor is.

My opinion changed, I’d say substantially, when I finally got to Draenor. I’d like to list my thoughts on the introduction zones, where they rise high and fall flat, and hopefully there are some lessons within.

Assault on the Dark Portal

My initial impressions of this section were that the jungle was very beautiful. Though Khadgar is prominent, he’s not overly-talky and I feel like a lot of the issues of Thrall’s Mary-Sue-ism are avoided. He stays back, only attacks when necessary, and generally lets you steer the ship. Also, he sasses Thrall, which I like a lot. I loved the way that you go through the portal and immediately are thrown into things. You hit the ground running, which is something that always works well for the start of an expansion. It’s engaging and you get a rough idea of who is involved – I’m not convinced that the giant bold text is completely necessary, though.

Shadowmoon Valley

Shadowmoon Valley is a world and then some away from its BC counterpart. It is completely different and yet still recognisable in some aspects. It is beautiful, eerie, dark and mysterious, and one of the centres of draenei culture.

I found it absolutely fantastic. The questing flow was smooth, the zone was incredibly immersive, the lore of the place was fantastic. I loved the ties to BC with the exarchs, as well as new lore such as the expansion of the draenei defence crystals. Questing was very engaging – I found any ‘kill x’ to be smoothly integrated, and there were plenty enough quests not of that variant to make up for any I encountered. Ashran, while it very much captures the ‘Alliance’ feel like the Garrison does, is no Karabor. Karabor is unquestionably draenei; beautiful, whole, magical on another level.

I also loved the feel of exploration. Quests were a surprising encounter and reward, and bonus objectives were interesting distractions, though I’d perhaps like some exposition to go with them (they seem very much to fit a ‘kill x’ format, and I’m not really sure why I’m doing them).

A negative of the zone to me, especially when levelling herbalism and archaeology, was that a lot of the zone often had small ledges that you had to run round when objectives were extremely close. I would much rather see an expansion of our ability to scale such things – jump boosts, wall-climbing, even jumping puzzles – rather than them just be an arbitrary obstacle due to our lack of flying.

All-in-all, the story was put together very well – though I could perhaps see the ending coming, Yrel was built up very well, Maraad didn’t feature too heavily, the scenery and music was fantastic – especially the occasional riffs of BC music. I loved the way the Shadowmoon exiles fit into the storyline, as well as Rulkan’s appearance as a follower – the blurring of faction lines in Draenor is a positive for me. Shadowmoon Valley was a strong starter zone and a good base from which to continue.

Frostfire Ridge

Frostfire, while very good.. felt lacklustre in some places. Particularly in the start, I felt like it was substantially less coherent. Whereas in Shadowmoon, we set up our garrison and then go to the native villages to set up trade and good relations, in Frostfire you set up your garrison and then go invade a citadel.

Part of this disappointment comes down to the fact that the quests were buggier than in SMV – I encountered several where objectives would complete at random, and where enemies would change phases without reason.

However, I felt like the zone hit its stride after Bladespire Citadel was taken. There was a real sense of desperate survival, both for the Frostwolves and the Thunderlords, though I was a little off-put by how there seemed to be less flow than in Shadowmoon. I would have liked more direction, but both quests and characters were engaging. While I wasn’t crying my eyes out like at the end of Shadowmoon, I got clear senses of character from the major players – Draka, Durotan, Ga’nar, Lokra, etc.

I think that the real let-down of Frostfire was the scenery, because while it was intended as a barren place where survival was hard – nothing stood out to me. Bladespire was a large rock. Everything else was snowy crags with hints of lava. The best scenery appears to have been reserved for the mountainous level 100 areas, which I have yet to access, and I found that disappointing. Nothing is noteworthy about Frostfire’s scenery, and I felt that it didn’t fully stretch the fantasy that the rest of Draenor appears to do. If anything, I feel like the Horde’s Ashran base more accurately captures the Horde + Draenor feel.

Oh, and there was Thrall. He appeared, was emotional about his parents, displayed a complete lack of understanding of his culture and shamanism, and had three random aunts and uncles introduced.

Plot-wise, I think the major disappointment was the end. We didn’t see much of an Iron Horde threat at all, compared to the assault on Karabor – you defeat a Son of Gruul and Drek’thar throws some rocks at a few siege engines. The lacklustre reveal that the Thunderlord leader had been Durotan’s older brother all along was not only inexplicable and unexplained, it was poor storytelling. I feel like the Frostwolves were let down and that the potential of the zone was not fulfilled by the focus on the Thunderlord story.

None of this, IMO, makes Frostfire a bad zone – it is a good starter zone. But comparatively, Shadowmoon is exceptional, and I hope there’s improvement as the Horde storyline progresses into Gorgrond.

Gaming Philosophy and Warlords of Draenor

Or: Staying in Pandaria and Avoiding Queuecraft

It’s been a few days – less than a week – since Warlords of Draenor’s launch across all servers, and I suppose I feel validated in my decision to hold off – at least, initially, until Christmastime – by the severe lag and server issues that are plaguing American and European realms.

I’m not exactly averse to ever getting Warlords of Draenor. WoW is still a game I love and it’s provided me with some wonderful memories. But I still can’t shake the hesitancy, the feeling that this isn’t what we should be focusing on that has plagued me since Blizzcon ’13. The graphics are pretty. The dynamics of the game look engaging. But the story feels inherently flawed, just as much as it felt flawed when it was announced.

That’s why I’m reluctant. I’ve always had apprehensions when expansions have been announced – Cataclysm in particular I initially thought would be horrible – but those thoughts are usually abated by the beta’s trickle of information.

Draenor still feels wrong to me. I don’t know if that’s intentional or if I’m in a minority here. It feels like a distraction. It feels inexplicable, like the only way to distract from the military and economic issues that would inevitably follow the wars of the past few years is to throw our characters into a universe where they have to work with an army entirely separate to the one in Azeroth’s, because we’re cut off from our homeworld entirely.

It intensely aggravates me. It reeks even more of Blizzard’s consistent avoidance of consequences. I can still tell that, when the threat of the Iron Horde is over, we are probably going to re-open the portal, head home, and forget it all happened. The contained issue of a Draenor that we were never meant to encounter is solved by the fact that we will cut it off from our own reality once we’re done with it.

That’s why I have found it so hard to invest in the story of Warlords of Draenor, as pretty as Shadowmoon Valley and Talador and Tanaan Jungle are, and as cool and innovative as the bosses may be. It’s not our story.

I… want to know what happens after Mists of Pandaria. I want to help out with the rebuilding, to see the effects we’ve had on the ecosystem of the Valley of Four Winds. To show Orgrimmar being slowly turned back into the multicultural hub of the Horde it was meant to be. The ramifications of changing the orcish position of Warchief into a trollish one. The political effects of Dalaran’s shift from neutral to Alliance – and possibly now back to  neutral. Whether Theramore will be rebuilt, whether the Mana Bomb affected the wildlife like it did in Terokkar Forest.

These are not stories that will be told. They are never told. Blizzard cannot maintain coherence between the old worlds of expansions past and the modern changes of the new worlds. We see them go back to old continents once or twice per expansion – 4.1, 5.3, the occasional quest chain – if we are lucky. Blizzard is great at a contained story – but at tying their stories together, they have so far fallen short. I don’t want to make a blanket statement that they won’t succeed in Warlords. But I cannot build the optimism. So I’ll wait until the verdicts on 6.0’s story come in.

Otherwise, I’m now at university. My time for World of Warcraft usually stretches to maybe 1 hour per day. I’m holding off on Warlords of Draenor – for better or worse – until Christmas, l have the time and resources to play and enjoy Warlords of Draenor, if I do buy it. I hope that I’ll be proven wrong when I do eventually join in. And that the servers will look a bit better. Until then, I’ll be doing whatever takes my fancy in-game and wishing the best of luck to those trying to access Draenor.

Shattered Heart: Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Unity

Sabellian

“Other dragons.” Sabellian murmured. They were here, beyond the Dark Portal. No dragons had ever crossed it before, not since Deathwing. Emotion flooded his senses and he could feel the beat of the earth beneath him. “Real dragons. They’re real. They’re real!”

Instinctively, he roared in greeting, the powerful boom of his deep voice amplified by the magic of the Nether. Cimmeria joined in, her own roar an octave higher, then another, and another and another until all the assembled dragons joined in, a chorus of yells of excitement and disbelief. Sabellian watched as the dragons from beyond leapt, one after the other, into the darkness of space, the magic of the Nether bringing them closer and closer.

“I can’t believe it. Azerothian dragons. Here.” Cimmeria laughed again, tears flitting down her blue skin. “This is all so much to take in.”

Sabellian thought back over the tumultuous day, from the uninspiring dawn to the tremendous change of the last hour. The earth continued to beat beneath him, the spirits more apparent than ever. “Something has changed within us. I can feel it. Maybe they feel it too.”

Cimmeria nodded, then paused. “Keep your guard up, still. They might be with the Twilight.”

“If they are, then they’ve gone through what we have too. Look.” Sabellian pointed through the portal, where the other dragons drifted through on half-mortal forms. “This… hybrid form isn’t natural. They must have felt the pain too. Heard the earth.”

“Then.. Maybe they’re on our side for once.”

~~~

Obessia

The vastness of space beckoned them all, and before she knew it the earth had pushed her out. Go. Seek your brethren. Your friends. This is why you came here.

This is why we came here. “Other dragons! Real black dragons! Quickly!”

“Obessia, wait!” Serinar’s voice clung to her through the Great Dark. “What if they’re hostile?”

“What if they’re friendly? We have no choice now, Serinar! There is no going back! They’re what we came here hoping to find. New brothers and sisters. New friends.” Obessia pushed forth, her wings guiding her through towards the other end of the portal. She had no idea why it was there in the first place. But she knew it was right.

She wasn’t the only one. Either side of her came the wingbeats of many, her flock joining her, the hope in their eyes beaming like it shone out of hers. Hope for peace. Recovery. Redemption. Here. This was where they belonged. She knew it in her heart.

The stars glittered around her, planets beyond measure, untouched by the Legion, by the Old Ones. The hope of the universe. The hope for a new dawn and a new day. Maybe they could no longer live in Azeroth, but in Outland… hope remained.

The portal beckoned, ever closer.

~~~

Cimmeria

All eyes were transfixed upon the portal. Adrenaline rushed through Cimmeria. She had scarcely believed this would, could ever happen. In the time after the world had been destroyed, the clutches of the Black Flight had been lost to the Beyond. The majority of the drakes had been hunted down by the gronn, and the eggs that remained were… different. They pulsated with energy and glowed bright blue. The new hatchlings were independent of thought, bound by no rules. They were the Netherwing, and like Cimmeria, the children of Deathwing…

But they were different to us.

These dragons… they were hope. Hope that Cimmeria wouldn’t see her brothers and sisters hunted down to extinction. Hope that the Black dragons would become stronger than ever. Her own words of caution floated away as she saw each dragon, pushing harder and harder to reach the end of the portal, their eyes beaming, power streaming from the leader, a small drake with the human form of a pallid human girl. Even separated by the Great Dark Beyond, Cimmeria felt the potential. The earth seemed to beat stronger and stronger as they approached.

They are the answer. They are like us. Outcasts, exiles. But together we can become all we need.

~~~

Serinar

Serinar left last, his caution overwhelmed by the happiness that he felt upon seeing other dragons. The rumours had all been true. Black dragons survived in Outland even as they fell in Azeroth.

Azeroth. The word was tainted in his head now. All it had ever been was death and destruction and fire. But everything had changed now. Outland was a home he had never known, but here was a whole family of dragons waiting, cheering as they approached. Outland was his home.

It’s all our homes. It is everything Azeroth never was, that our flight never had.

“Last one there’s a green dragon!” Serinar yelled, his wings pushing him past the rest of the flock. Obessia laughed and gave chase, snapping at his heels.

Bolstered by his support of the endeavour, the flock tightened, each dragon striving to reach the end of the portal. They raced together, becoming one.

One family. One flock. One hope.

Shattered Heart: Chapter 3

Chapter 3: Rage

Cimmeria

Her whole body was flooded with pain on a level she had scarcely thought to be real. It stabbed at every joint, feeling like a thousand claws prying off her scales. A sickly screech followed the pain, and in the blistering heat Cimmeria realised it was her own mangled cry as she was shunted midway between her mortal and draconic forms. Scales erupted across her smooth skin and mortal-sized wings burst from her sides. She felt fangs push into a mortal mouth, making her neither dragon nor draenei.

What is happening?

Through blurred vision she saw the twilight cultists scattering, some cackling, dancing around the ogres.

They did this to me. They’re making this happen.

Cimmeria became aware of the earth’s surface cracking under her feet, her consciousness expanding with each crack. She could feel the tremors of a far-off earthquake beginning.

I have to stop them.

Blinded by pain, she leapt, snarling, at the sound of the laughter.

~~~

Serinar

A low rumble signified a sudden earthquake, and Serinar’s surroundings were filled with yelps and screeching as the flock was struck down by some terror.

“What’s going on?” He yelled, frantic, glancing around for the source. A second rumble hit, closer this time, and pain flooded his skull, forcing tears out of his green eyes. He stumbled and collapsed upon the floor as the pain shoved him roughly into a mangled half-dragon form, torn wings fluttering helplessly.

You are ours now. No one runs from the Hammer.

From out of the earth rose a twisted creature, elemental material bound to humanoid form, slightly reptilian in stature. He’d seen them before. The Ascended, the upper echelons of the Hammer’s shaman, bound with an elemental in a terrifyingly powerful combination. Serinar clutched at the ground but the earth continued to reverberate, screaming pain at him louder than anything he had ever encountered. He could feel the earth pulsating, energy flowing like blood out of the cracks the Ascendant had caused.

Eventually, it became too much, and he gave in, head laid upon the ground, waiting for oblivion.

“No. You’re hurting the spirits. You must stop.”

Serinar saw the young drake push herself from the floor. Like the rest, she was caught in a half-dragon form, her violet eyes burning against her onyx scales and porcelain human skin. Somehow, she remained standing, pushing back against the power of the Ascendant. Serinar could feel energy racing out of the earth to meet her in a way he had only ever seen shamans master. It was as though they were acting in harmony.

The Ascendant let out a croaky snarl. Strong one. I shall enjoy breaking you.

~~~

Sabellian

Time seemed to slow as the flock fell to their knees, pulled into mismatched shapes of humanoids and draconids. Power rained upon his skull, making him suffer similarly. His claws shrank back into soft human hands, his heavy wings pulling his mortal form down.

What is happening? Why is the earth screaming?

You belong to us now, son of Deathwing.

In the middle of the ridge, Sabellian could see them. Twilight cultists, flanked by enslaved elementals. He had no idea how they had accessed the ridge. On hands and knees, he growled a warning, but the other dragons laid immobile, paralysed by pain.

“No.. We are free..” Sabellian drew upon every ounce of will he could, the same will he had once used to combat the voices, and pushed upwards, shakily coming to his feet. Unused to the half-mortal form, he swayed slightly, unbalanced.

They told us you would be strong of will. Those born of the Destroyer’s blood are the strongest. You shall serve us well.

“I serve.. no one.. but my flock.” Sabellian focused his gaze on the closest shaman, a tall elven figure. The shaman met his gaze head on, and more pain flooded his senses. The earth expanded around him. He could feel every inch, every speck of dust, every crack in the dry ground, and it screamed at him.

Sabellian took a step forward as his lucid blue eyes began to glow bright orange with fire, the scales on his face flickering.

“You will… stop. I will protect them.” Glaring at the shaman, Sabellian launched off the ground, propelling himself with his rough wings towards the shaman, claws outstretched.

~~~

Obessia

The earth raced up to meet her, intertwining with her fingers. I’ll protect you. I’ll stop them. They’re hurting both of us.

Obessia lifted up off the floor with a few wingbeats, swinging the earth at the Ascendant like a whip. It bounced off, shattering into pieces.

You’ll have to try harder, little drake. Elementium spikes ripped through the ground and the screams intensified. Obessia weaved, the wings barely working with her mortal form.

“Then I will.”

Obessia mirrored the spikes, curving a trap around the Ascendant’s leg. It snapped the earth off and fired it at her. She blocked with a shield of earth.

Voices flooded her consciousness as she became one with the earth. Save us. Free us. Protect us. You were guardians once. Be a guardian.

Obessia hovered in mid-air, letting the voices wash over her. She weaved through the sky, dodging the elementium attacks of the Ascendant. She dropped onto the Ascendant and the earth rippled following her attack. The Ascendant hissed as she leapt back, the earth moving and obeying her thoughts. The Ascendant fired a beam of dark energy at her and she deflected it. At her request, the earth beneath the Ascendant became like quicksand, dragging it in.

I am their guardian. They are mine. You will not harm the earth any longer.

Obessia landed on the ground, approaching the trapped Ascendant, and snapped its head off with a claw.

~~~

Cimmeria

It took four decapitated cultists before Cimmeria regained her sight. By then the cultists had reformed in a defensive position, protecting the ogres.

Her senses continued to expand. The rage of the earth flooded her mind. They hurt us. Destroy them. Free us.

She snarled, leaping from a rock and impaling two cultists on her claws, tossing them to their deaths on the bladed canyon edge. Her red eyes burned with fury.

“How dare you.” Cimmeria leapt once more, slamming down upon the ground. Spikes of earth came up, erupting through the bodies of three more cultists. Cimmeria took a step back in shock, staring at her claws, scales mixing with dark blue skin.

“Did I-” Cimmeria’s ponderance was interrupted by a stream of pain, as more of the earth cracked around her.

Never mind. I have to stop them. The cultists scattered, fleeing the spikes, and Cimmeria saw her opening. The ogres were focused on the grimoire between them, casting more spells to harm the earth. She braced for launch, leaning back on one leg, and springing up into the air.

She knocked one ogre clean over with a kick to the head, incinerating the other with her fire breath as she flew over. Landing on bent knee before them, she turned.

Both ogres smiled at her like possessed corpses as they toppled over, completely intact yet totally dead. Cimmeria turned to the book. Dark, sickly runes swirled over the tome, amplifying the pain she felt yet she crawled closer. As she was about to end the book, however, it blinked out of existence.

The pain disappeared. Cimmeria struggled to her feet, her sight sharpening. The cultists were nowhere to be seen.

I have to let Sabellian know.

Sabellian. She cursed. It could have been an hour. She raced up the canyon wall, springing from spire to spire, her form refusing to return to normal.

~~~

Sabellian

The dead cultist fell to the floor behind him as Sabellian turned, strong, to face the remainder. Elementium sprung out of nowhere, and though he had never seen it before he could feel its taint, taste the corruption it spread through the earth. Gritting his teeth, he clamped on to the metal with one claw, willing it to return to the underbelly of the shattered earth.

It complied, slithering back as the earth swallowed it. The cultists advanced.

You’ll regret that. The shaman muttered to themselves and the earth cracked more, the pain intensifying. Save us, son of Neltharion. Protect your domain. Your duty. Sabellian felt his knuckles crack as the pain continued to shove him into a half-mortal, half-dragon form. His wings beat stronger, lifting him up into the air with ease.

“You underestimate us. We are black dragons. We are free from you and your masters, and we will always be free. This is our home. We know the earth better than you ever will.”

The words sprang out of nowhere, but Sabellian knew them to be true. The earth rippled below his feet, working with him against the Hammer. He pulled the earth around him into a shield, barrelling into a second cultist.

You have made a grave mistake-

“No, you have! You and your masters will burn in the Nether!” Cimmeria leapt over the edge of the ridge, blocking out the sun as she flew overhead. Sabellian felt pride well up as he saw her glow with power, slamming into another cultist and kicking over a fourth.

“I was wondering when you’d turn up.” Sabellian smirked at her. Cimmeria bowed mockingly. “It’s good to see you, too.”

Between them, they quickly dispatched the cultists. Cimmeria began tending to the other members of the flock as the pain receded, the earth repairing itself. Sabellian glanced out into the Beyond – and found himself staring into the eyes of a dragon.

~~~

Serinar

Struggling to his feet, Serinar felt relief as the earth’s pain washed away. Obessia glowed with power.

“I- I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Obessia remained in her half-dragon form, as did the rest. Something remained amiss, but she smiled. “I understand them. I can feel them in the earth. The spirits.”

Serinar was at a loss for words.

“It’s our old powers, isn’t it? I can control them.”

“Well, yes, but… Deathwing gave those up long ago.”

Obessia shrugged it off. “This isn’t the world Deathwing swore to protect. This is our world now.”

Serinar paused to dwell on her words. He, like the others, had felt the earth in a way he never had before in that fight. It was as though the Ascendant had unlocked something inside them – a hidden capability to understand the earth, long since hidden by older members of the flight. Even now he could feel the spirits of the earth as they moved, pulsating like heartbeats.

“Even so, we still have a lot to learn-” Serinar went quiet as he looked up, following Obessia’s gaze into the Beyond – right into the eyes of a dragon.