I'm finally back! It was a longer (and more stressful) layover than I had hoped, but I have made my way back to the promised land of blogging about video games and miniatures. I learned a lot in that time - though nothing that I can relate back to you in this medium. At least, nothing interesting.
Whilst I was in my apartment with no furniture, no life and no hope, I found myself with a lot of spare time and nothing to fill it with. My life was in boxes, my paints and computer packed away. I even packed up the Switch, as dumb as that was. But I did have my 'trusty' laptop, which heats up to approximately a million degrees celsius when doing anything more intensive than word processing.
So what do you do when you have no money, no motivation and nothing to do. Well, as it turns out, you play the latest expansion for World of Warcraft - Shadowlands.
Back in Action
Full disclaimer - I have played World of Warcraft before, to varying degrees of commitment. Some expansions I went hard on the grind and gearing up, only to one day wake up and stop. Other expansions I came in too late and too far behind the meta-curve to experience all the content. But I am in no way deluding myself about what world of warcraft is, or what these games are. In polite company, I referred to playing World of Warcraft's latest expansion in the same terms as drug addiction. In poor taste, perhaps - but seemingly more relevant every time I logged on to get my 'fix'.
Because, like a huge mushroom in your shower, World of Warcraft is always waiting for you. It's always a fall-back option and it's never too far from what you remember. Like other venerable video game franchises, the building blocks of WoW's gameplay have remained the same. Even as the top-level mechanics get altered and additional layers of detail are added, it will always be the same MMO that you remember when you were in high school playing on the same 'family computer' now lost to time.
It didn't take long for me to get the hang of playing again. Press the buttons, kill the dudes, collect the stuff, return for experience or other arbitrary resource. Though I did appreciate that Blizzard conducted a squish prior to release. Apart from a disgusting sound made when stepping in wet mud, this is a term coined by the developers to represent a condensation of levels, stats and numbers.
So now everyone has a maximum level of 60 (down from 120) and the statistics on items are now back in the high double digits instead of the triple digits. An arbitrary change, perhaps - but immersion is key in these sorts of experiences to keep players coming back for another helping of thin digital gruel. Blizzard knows the immersion game very well.
It seems that Shadowlands has brought with it somewhat of a shift in priorities. As to be expected of any online RPG, levelling is a key part of the game. It teaches you the fundamentals of gameplay, supposedly ensuring you've mastered the basics when you reach the end of the ride. However, this time around, levelling in the game has been seriously truncated.
I went from level 1 to level 50 in the space of three days - admittedly, this equates to about twelve hours of in-game play time. One of the new features of Shadowlands is to let you pick any zone in World of Warcraft's past to level in. Something that is surely nostalgia bait, but a welcome adjustment in the formula.
Once you reach level 50, the game begins again. You tap into the content of Shadowlands, with experience and rewards adjusted so that questing in the 'old world' delivers no value. It took me another three days of play (again, approximately 12 - 16 hours of time) to get to 60. As I'll explain later though, you don't just down tools once you get to the end of the levelling.
At a glance, an extra sixty bucks for an expansion pack is not very cash money of Blizzard, considering they're already charging you a subscription fee for the game, which has risen in the last year. This is despite the fact that Blizzard pays part of their workforce so little that these employees cannot afford to eat at the work cafeteria. Let's just say J. Allen Brack has a lot to explain.
It's a Mad, Mad World
So, acknowledging that Shadowlands hasn't changed and that you reach endgame content in record time to blow through it, the pillar that WoW has to stand on is its narrative content. In this pundit's opinion, it's always the setting and story that makes World of Warcraft a compelling game and has allowed it to exist as long as it has. The World of Warcraft (the series, not just the MMO) is a rich tapestry of characters, stories, locations and events. Even approaching two decades of World of Warcraft, these recurring narrative elements keep the game compelling long after the mechanics of the WoW have stagnated.
So as it turns out, Blizzard's writers can make the broad strokes of a compelling story. With lots of plotholes that only get bigger the further you look into them. And whilst we should talk about those, there are so many of them I could fill an entire article and still not be done.
So the current plot involves Sylvanas Windrunner (see above point about strong recurring characters) breaking the barrier between the world of Azeroth and the Shadowlands - considered to be the 'afterlife' of the universe. Of course just doing that isn't enough, she then needs to kidnap important Alliance and Horde characters to make sure you feel compelled to give chase. The promise of story and phat lewt compels you to give pursuit, whereupon everything goes tits up and you end up in the Warcraft universe's version of Hell - the Maw.
Eventually you make your escape and find that the afterlife is experiencing a series of unusual events. It's up to you to explore the different zones, kill the things, collect everything you don't kill and progress the story. There are four realms dealing with various crises, stemming from an 'anima drought' - a resource generated when folks pass into the afterlife. Your job, whilst levelling to 60, is to go to each of these four realms and push the story along. Some of these stories are moving and compelling, whereas others are boring and stupid. Your mileage will vary.
In somewhat of a change, you don't down tools as soon as you hit max level and immediately work on end game content. Your first character must complete all the story missions across all the realms prior to getting to work on endgame content. I like this change as it ensures that every player that has made it to level 60 understands why they're here and where to go next. Unless you just want to do PvP because eSports are a thing.
The four primary realms of the Shadowlands are broken up roughly based on the deeds and characteristics of the soul entering the Shadowlands. Each realm is home to a famous figure from world of warcraft's past - although some realms get two, or even three.
The first realm you encounter is Bastion, which is like ancient greece, but with more blue people and robots. The souls of this realm are the purest of heart - supposedly. It's a beautiful zone with pastel purples and rolling golden hillocks. Kind of like what heaven should actually be like.
Next, the zone of Maldraxxus is a shameless ripoff of the Eye of Terror, except puke green and featuring a higher density of rotting meat as opposed to daemons. People fight all day and all night - like discount Valhalla.
Next cab off the rank is Ardenweald - unashamedly my favourite zone, even if I did play a hunter. Literally where all good dogs and cats go when they die, only to be reborn by being placed inside seeds. With its deep blues and greens and "eternal night" atmosphere, it is for me, the best zone.
Lastly, Revendreth. This is where all the evil souls go who could potentially be saved if they can survive the weight of their sins. Like high fantasy meets 18th century aristocracy crossed with vampires. A lot of influences, a lot of richness and a lot of depth. But also the story with the most gaps in it.
Whilst faction management is nothing new in World of Warcraft, Shadowlands has you ally with one of the four realms. This alliance directs how you experience the end-game content. There's a covenant specific campaign which adds on to the original story, you gain two factional abilities and you gain access to supporting NPCs which empower your character. There's also a host of other small features - a base you upgrade over time, a minigame to acquire resources - evolutions of features introduced previously.
New Year, New Trousers
So we've reached the end of the ride - we're level 60, we've picked a faction and we're wondering - what's next?
Well as with all endgame content, the first thing you'll want is phat lewt. You can get this in a number of ways.
First, there's the tried and true method of raiding. This is what I played to eventually get up to - sign up with a guild and take on big enemies who play a key role in the story. Doing this (provided you can kill the evil dudes, which is not always simple) will provide you with the (relative) best pants. As you get better pants, you can try harder difficulty levels, which provide higher quality items.
A recent innovation (recent being the previous expansion, maybe two, I don't know, sue me) is for dungeons to have an additional layer of difficulty. Mythic difficulty dungeons are harder and provide good pants. However, the fun doesn't stop there. You can also use 'keystones', which allow you to race the dungeon against a timer. Keystones have levels, which increase the difficulty and also give the enemies additional properties to make your life harder. It is perfectly acceptable to never raid and just rely on loot from these mythic dungeons.
And lastly, there's PvP. I didn't try PvP, I don't care for PvP, it's the only eSport component of WoW. But WoW attracts people of all tastes - and lots of people enjoy playing PvP. It just wasn't for me.
To help people gear up even further, completing certain milestones in dungeons, raids and PvP gives you access to a powerful item once a week. The 'Great Vault' is an excellent way to help players gear up when they're on the grind to meet key targets to raid or get into more difficult Mythic Keystone dungeons.
However to compensate for this (and to reinforce that we are in a hell of Blizzard's own making) gear drops from dungeons have been reduced. Completing a keystone dungeon on time gives the group two items - and in a raid group of up to thirty people, you get three items. Whilst it wasn't a frustration for me to begin with, as I started to get tunnel vision, it felt stingy and unpleasant. Apparently there are plans in the works to reverse this, but I'll believe it when I see it.
Ultimately what I want to zero in on is that there's content here for days. Weeks, even. But you have to be driven to access this content. It takes organisation, people skills, willingness to work with others and most importantly, lots of time. World of Warcraft is and always will be a massive time sink. This is not new and it's not an uncomfortable truth. It's just how it is - and I wouldn't change it, even if I could.
In the end I enjoyed my time with World of Warcraft's latest expansion. But that comes with the huge caveats that I had nothing to do and it cost me $120. That's two single-player switch titles or most of the way to a Primaris Repulsor. Having moved and more things competing for my attention, the thought of grinding myself down to a nub for pants - well, it just doesn't thrill me now.
So before writing this, I put down the 'needle' I let my sub run down. A day later I considered picking it up again, but just couldn't bring myself to overcome all the little mental hurdles. The time investment, trying to get a spot in a raid group, all the downtime applying for Mythic Keystone groups. I had finished the Raid and nearly finished the Heroic raid too. I achieved my goal. I said that I would come back when there was new content, but, now I'm not so sure.
Friends don't let friends do World of Warcraft.
Catch you next time,
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