Sunday, January 1, 2017

Stage Three. Early Max Level: Re-Setting the Table

Upon reaching level 110, the max level for this expansion, you enter Stage Three.  In keeping with Blizzard’s more recent game design philosophy, maximum character level does not mean that character progression stops, nor that you are done questing.  You enter a phase of continued progression, through story sequences, building reputation, and a whole new story-driven questing zone named Suramar, home of the Nightfallen.  You’ll also have world quest objectives, as well.

The key to navigating this transition is to remember that just because a host of these new options appear doesn’t mean that you need to rush off and start doing them all at once.  If you take things in order, they will all still be there when you come to them.

Step 1. 

The moment you ding 110 you’ll have an explosion of things happening.  Khadgar will have as many as three quests that he’ll want you to come visit him to talk about, and he’ll even chase you around in a pink bubble, nagging at you.  Accept all the quests to come and see him, but don’t head off there just now.  Instead, start at the class order hall.

Artifact Research
The very first thing you want to do is find the person in charge of Artifact Research.  They’ve had a white quest mark above their heads until now.  You’ll accept a quest; talk to them again immediately and click on “Let’s continue research on my artifact.”  This artifact research is the lifeblood and heartbeat of the expansion.  Research applies a multiplier to all artifact power items that you find. The more research you complete, the faster your artifact weapon will advance.  Since your weapon will be requiring exponentially greater artifact power with each level, this Research mechanic is the only thing that will allow you to keep pace with its ever-growing demand.

You need to start this research as soon as possible, and check to see that it is progressing at the beginning of each session.  Since the research multiplier only applies to newly acquired artifact power tokens, you’ll want to collect that research at the beginning of your session, so that it applies to everything you earn.  Remember to prioritize Artifact Research above other things you can spend order resources on. This is far more important than spending those resources on the mission board, for example, or recruiting minions.  And you’ll want to make sure that it is always going, even if you do nothing else that day.  You always want to wind the Research clock.

Research runs on Order Resources.  You’ll need 500 each time you want to wind the clock.  That quickly adds up so you need to earn enough resources to keep it ticking.  The primary way to earn Order Resources is through World Quests, and we’ll talk about that in the near future. 

Class Order Armor Set
Another new quest available at the Order Hall is from the quartermaster, who is basically a reputation vendor.  The vendor will give you an ilevel 810 helm, the first of many pieces of your Class order set.  The vendor will have the eight pieces that make up the set, each with a different requirement to unlock them.

On the second page of the vendor, you’ll find armor upgrade tokens.  These are available for order resources, and allow the pieces from the class armor set to remain competitive with your other armor.  It is definitely worth the first upgrade to your helm at this point.  One of the main gear objectives, eventually, is to reach ilvl 825 to qualify for LFR.  So bringing class order armor pieces to 830 is definitely worthwhile.

Also, when you first ding 110, a strange thing happens to the mobs.  Up until this point, you have been godlike in your ability to lay waste to your foes.  Suddenly with that ding, the same mob that you two-shotted at 109 becomes much harder to kill at 110.  The auto-balancing mechanic is tuned to a higher ilevel for a 110 character, and silver mobs that you used to be able to easily solo are suddenly unkillable.  This is where Order Hall armor sets become valuable.

The following list of armor pieces gives a rough order of the difficulty of obtaining them and can give you an idea of what things you should begin to focus on.
•    Helm (810): complete a quest in the class hall after reaching 110
•    Wrists (810): recruit 6 champions in your class hall
•    Legs (820): clear every Legion dungeon, regardless of difficulty
•    Chest (830): finish your order hall campaign
•    Boots (840): reach revered with 2 different Broken Isles factions
•    Gloves (820): reach honored with the Nightfallen reputation
•    Belt (840): earn a total of 100,000 Artifact Power
•    Shoulders (850): reach exalted with the Nightfallen reputation

Order Hall Upgrades
One of the NPCs in your order hall offers you bonuses or benefits that affect your mission board and champions.  This is presented as a series of choices between two options:  one relates to the success of missions on the mission board, and the other relates to questing in the world.  For example, you can choose between extra mission success and upgraded quest loot. 

At this stage, the third tier of upgrades becomes particularly important.  My experience was that order resources were most limiting, at this point.  The option to obtain champion armaments and equipment was the most useful to me, because one of those items gives you an extra 50 order resources for every world quest you finish.  A continuous stream of order resources is necessary to fulfill other requirements.  That’s a passive stream of 200 resources per day, but it also gives you a guaranteed mechanism for generating resources, should you need it.  If you need to collect 2000 resources for a armor upgrade, run 20 world quests/day for 2 days and you’ll have it.

My strategy is very quest-centric, as this expansion seems to prefer, so this benefit paid off significantly for me, particularly at this stage of the game.  If your strategy is more focused on running dungeons and raiding, and doing missions through the app. then the other choice might be better.  Additionally, at very late endgame, you may be prioritizing gold missions when the other choice might be preferable.
When I chose the other option (to increase your number of minions) it did help me to complete more missions per day, but I quickly depleted my order resources, since each mission took 150-200 resources.  Even though I had minions to send, I didn’t have the resources to start the missions because I needed those resources elsewhere.

The next tier of upgrades (Tier 4) requires you to spend 10,000 Order Resources.  We need to maximize our rate of accumulation, not facilitate our ability to spend them.

Order Hall storyline
Next, look around your order hall for additional new quests that continue the story line of your Class Order hall.  This will expand again at level 110.  You want to recruit your final champion, earn your bracers and unlock a further series of quests. Typically, these are tasks to complete a number of world quests and Mission board missions.  These aren’t things you can just go out and do; they’re going to take several days, so just keep these quests in mind.

Once you’ve gathered all available tasks in your Order hall, port to Dalaran and gather your assignments there.  You have multiple quest that deal with Khadgar, but there are some stops to make first.
Check with your cook in the faction inn and complete that intro series of quests to unlock recipe research, then commit your available cooking resources to researching new recipes.

In the Commerce district of Dalaran, there is a burning wagon and a quest series to complete here.
 It’s probably a good idea to drop in to your profession trainers to update your quests there.  There is also an archaeology quest in the commerce district as well.

Step 2.

At this point, we’ve again moved most of the housekeeping tasks out of the way.  It’s time to complete the thing we’ve been putting off, and go visit Khadgar in the Violet Citadel.

Khadgar has three main things for us.  First, he continues the Naaru quest series back at your class order hall.  Second, he unlocks world quests for us, which will be a valuable source of resources for our artifact research.  Third, he opens up the story line that will bring us into Suramar and introduces us to the Nightfallen.  The final quest he has is for a dungeon on mythic difficulty.  We probably won’t be ready for mythic dungeons for a while, so I ignore that quest for now to keep it from distracting me.

World Quests

Before we go anywhere, let’s talk about world quests for a minute.  World quests appear on zone maps when you zoom into a particular zone.  There are three main types of world quests:  The majority of the world quests will be regular and will reward a variety of loot, as mentioned in the description.  A few world quests will be special, however.  Dungeon world quests can be completed as an additional boss in an LFG dungeon.   Weekly World Quests have a golden dragon around them, and a purple background.  These are intended to be completed in a group, which you can join from the group-finder.  The rewards are scaled to the difficulty, however, and worth trying to pug.  True to their name, these only appear once a week.
There is another mechanic at work as well.  In the bottom left corner of the zone map is a set of three Emissary quests.  These are circular faction badges with four exclamations underneath.  Complete four world quests for the indicated faction, and they will offer you a substantial reward which will include a significant reputation gain with that faction.  The Kirin Tor emissary quest will reward you with reputation of the faction of your choice.  These quests also will give you order hall resources, which is what you need to keep the Artifact research clock ticking.  A new emissary will appear each day so you can do one emissary quest each day, or three at once.

The bottom line here is that you want to do one emissary quest per day, and one weekly world quest each week.

Khadgar has just unlocked these quests for us, but we will get to them later.  For now, examine the purple orb in front of him, and follow the storyline to Suramar.  This may seem like an odd choice, but we want to open up Suramar, and pick up the flightpath.  We don’t need to go very far however, and will probably save this area for later questing.  Complete the series up to the point where you turn in the three mana crystals.  That leaves plenty of quests for us to pick back up the golden thread when we return to Suramar. 
For now, return to the class order hall and we’ll complete the first of Khadgar’s tasks.  Speak to the Naaru Xe’ra and watch the conversation, before returning to Khadgar and finally back to your order hall to talk with Lights Heart again.

Step 3.

We’ve mentioned this before but let’s address it again here:  You still need to complete all the named storylines in each zone.  And this is true even though you don’t need experience any more.  The two main reasons why this is true are that
1.  You need to do this in order to unlock Legion Pathfinder, which allows flying in Legion
2. Because this is the easiest way to gain reputation with the four starting factions. 

You need to get at least two of them to Revered to unlock your 840 boots from the Order Hall set, and you need all six factions at Revered for Pathfinder (note that this is not the same as the reason above.  It is possible to reach revered without the storylines, but you need both for Pathfinder.
The most obvious time to complete the four beginning zones is right now.  They are still somewhat of a challenge for a fresh level 110, but more importantly, they still function as an introduction to this continent of the Broken Isles, and we still need to complete our primary assignment of gathering the four Pillars of Creation.  In terms of the overall storyline of Legion, their place in the narrative is now.

With that in mind, open your achievements and go to Quests -> Legion, and check each zone for the named storylines.  Find any that don’t have a green check and resume questing.  It’s time to get back out into the world.

While you’re out there, feel free to pick up any world quests that are along your path, and continue to clear out treasure chests and Rares.  These are fading in their relevance, so this is the last chance for them to be meaningful.

As usual, follow the standard order for tasks
1.    Order hall housekeeping
2.    Order hall quests and Light’s Heart quests
3.    Profession quests
4.    Zone quests


Step 4.

You will know that you have reached step 4 when a number of things begin to come together.
First, you have completed the Order Hall quest series, typically ending with a great cinematic and group shot.
Second, your Light’s Heart quest series ends with a task to gather 80 lingering soul fragments.  These are reported to drop from any end boss, but the most straightforward way to gain them is through mythic dungeons.  Once we've gained this quest, we can just take the fragments when they com.
Third, your profession quests send you into Suramar, probably to do something that you won’t be able to accomplish until you have progressed the Nightfallen storyline.
Fourth, you have completed the four starting zones and the storylines and have a check beside each one.  As a result, you have reached honored with the four factions and have assembled the four Pillars of Creation.
Fifth, you have completed all 8 dungeons on normal difficulty.  On your achievements page, go to Dungeons & Raids and select Legion Dungeon.  Mouse over the points awarded for each dungeon to see if it has been completed by your current character.
  • Violet Hold
  • Neltharion’s Lair
  • Maw of Souls
  • Halls of Valor
  • Darkheart Thicket
  • Eye of Azshara
  • Black Rook Hold
  • Vault of the Wardens
Typically, your gear ilevel is around 815-820, just under the LFR threshold;   your artifact level is 16-18 and your research level is 5-6.
Your goal for step 4 is to make sure that each of the five requirements listed above has been completed.  Of course, concentrate on any that haven’t reached this stage before moving on.

When you have completed the requirements of Step 4, you have finished the early max-level stage.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Legion Guide: Stage Two. Level 106-109. Story Questing

While Stage One was mostly preparation and establishing the class order halls, this second stage shifts the focus into following the major story lines of the expansion.  There are actually four stories being told, each with its own narrative progression.

1.  The first one is the story told through the class Order Halls.  This is the story that begins with the acquisition of your first artifact weapon and continues through introducing your order hall, and recruiting champions to fill it.

2.  The second is the main story line of the expansion, told to you primarily by Khadgar and later by the Light's Heart naaru that you discover.

3.  The third is told through the questing zones of the Broken Isles.  It follows how you aid the inhabitants of the Broken Isles as they deal with the effects of the Legion on their homeland.

4.  The fourth story is actually told by our profession trainers.  Rather than simply vending recipes, the crafter trainers offer an extended series of quests that tell a story all their own.

We have to begin with a little questing philosophy.  When I brought my first character through this expansion, I found it very easy to get overwhelmed with quests.  I would have my quest log filled to bursting with dozens of unrelated quests from as many different sources, and the world map was awash with questing opportunities as well.  I would plunge from one task to the next, not even knowing why I was doing something.  The result was not very enjoyable.

First, it help we to be clear about which of the four stories a particular quest belongs to.  Whether this is a core Legion quest from Khadgar, or a peripheral crafting quest makes a difference to how I experience it. 

With so many different story threads going on at once, I find it easier to focus on a single thread at a time.  If I’m working on an Order hall quest, I push through until it’s complete and turned in before I take on another assignment.  If I have profession quests, I like to finish them and turn them in before doing general quests.  I know that this goes against the grain of efficiency in questing, but I don’t really think efficiency is the highest good this time around.  Trying to do too much at once just makes each piece less meaningful.   If you enjoy the questing and crafting long game, (vs the short game to get into raiding ) I found that it brings the world alive to focus on individual tasks.

Step 1.

At this stage we want to nail down our Order Hall management so we can spend less time there and more out in the Broken Isles. Adopting a priority based system  means we can be more efficient and spend less mental overhead on daily decisions. 

Every day when you log on, you want to complete the following steps in order.
  1. Mission Board:
    • Collect the reward from any completed missions.
    • Assign any experience or weapon rewards to your followers
  2. Visit your lower and upper level recruiters and replace any depleted ranks
  3. Return to the mission board to initiate new missions.
  4. Check to see that your Order Hall researcher is continuing to work on mission upgrades
  5. Check the rest of your order hall, including the Naaru Light’s Heart, to see if there are any available quests
  6. Travel to Dalaran looking for newly available quests:
    • check Khadgar
    • check profession trainers
       7. Return to your designated questing zone and complete at least the named quest lines
At each of these steps, if you find something to do, go ahead and complete it right away, and then return and turn it in for credit and reward.  Following our questing philosophy, don’t try to mix your missions into a single trip.  Just keep them separate and that will keep it very clear why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Step1 is all about getting this routine down so that it becomes second nature.

Step 2.
Step two begins at level 105.  Before you go any further, you should complete all Order Hall quests, all profession quests, and all Khadgar quests as much as you are able.  Continue following up the quest lines until no more are offered.  Step 2 ends when the only quests you have available are in the individual zones.

This was unexpected to me, but with all the order hall, core, and profession quests, along with a few dungeons, we have easily leveled halfway through this expansion while staying within a single zone. 

Step 3.
With the housekeeping  finished, the rest of our time can be spend completing the story quests found in the starting zones.  From level 105 to 110, there is nothing of interest happening in either Dalaran or the Order Hall.  This is the time to go all out and immerse yourself in the narrative of each Pillar of Creation.

Open your Achievement window and go to the Quests -> Legion tab.  Among the first 7 items should be the zone you started in.  Click on that zone to find the story lines that you have completed.  Any that are gray are still to be done. Travel now to that zone and finish those questing areas.   If all of them have green checks, then it’s time to start a new zone.

Take time now to locate any treasure chests and defeat any rare silver spawns near to you as you travel through the zones.  At these early levels, the artifact power and order resources from treasures and Rare spawns are the most useful.  Small amounts of artifact power at these early tiers can still move the bar significantly.  At higher levels the tokens found in chests reward so little AP that they almost aren’t worth gathering, so don't wait until later to go around gathering treasure chests.  Rare spawns loot seems to reach a max level at 785+ and world quest reward will easily be better than that, immediately upon reaching level 110.

The bottom line is, get those rare spawns and treasure chests now.

Because I take a Story First approach, when I complete a zone, I also try to complete the related dungeon, as part of the narrative.  If you queue for LFD with the zone capstone quest in your log, your que time for the dungeon will be extremely short.  Upon completion, go ahead and return the Pillar of Creation to the Dalaran Tower where the ceremony there will reward an armor piece as well.

  Follow the checklist in order, and make sure to check each option carefully.  When you are questing in your chosen zone, try to strive for 5 points in each profession (fishing, cooking, gathering, etc.).

By the time I had reached level 110, I was just completing the third zone, with one named storyline remaining.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Legion Guide: Stage One Level 100 - 105

One of the great things about the Legion expansion is that at any given moment there are dozens of different things to do.  And not just "dozens of different dailies."  Legion has expanded PVE gameplay on many fronts.

The downside, however, is that so many different options can be a little overwhelming when you've only got 90 minutes to sit down with a character at the end of a long work day and you just want to get something meaningful done so you can sleep with a feeling of peace and satisfaction.  It was precisely because of that feeling that I began to write out for myself what was most important at any given point in the game.

I am leveling several alts through this expansion and each is at a different point on the journey.  The reason I posted this was to make my own leveling path easier; so that I could know where each of my characters were at any given time, and what tasks were important for them at that moment. 

More than in the past, this expansion has a number of key components that, if you aren't aware of them early on, you might set yourself back a number of weeks or months by missing out.  That's not to say that you can't always recover when you realize that something is missing.  But so far there are no easy catch-up mechanics if early on you didn't understand the value of Artifact Research, for example.  And I find crafting quests are much more enjoyable when they are part of the leveling experience, rather than blowing through them later in the game when they are trivial and more likely to be annoying than entertaining.

This is a guide for the baseline progression of a new character through the first several weeks of the game.  and it is written from a perspective of someone who likes Story First, who values crafting, and who wants to take the time to work on reputation and other Pathfinder requirements  This isn't a guide to be "Raid ready in 5 days."  I want to explore most of what the game has to offer.

STAGE ONE.  Level 100 – 105:  Establishing the Power Base

Step 1. 

The very first quest that opens the expansion should be automatically given to you, or it appears in the adventure guide on your taskbar:  This is the quest to find the recruiter in Stormwind Harbor.

This is the quest that starts it all, and once you climb on this train the quest series should guide you step by step through the Broken Shores event. However, if you've already played through this on other characters, the recruiter gives you the option to "<Skip the Legion introductory quests and begin your journey in Dalaran>"

Either pathway will drop you in New Dalaran, in front of Emissary Auldbridge, who will complete your quest and unceremoniously walk away, leaving you all alone for a few moments.  After a bit, though, something begins to happen, so just stay right there.  Usually, a herald of some kind will show up and start you on your way, although other classes (Shaman, for example) might have to pay attention to the NPCs around them for clues as to what to do next.  This herald will start you on the next story line.

Almost immediately, you will be sent on a mission to recover your first artifact weapon.  Again, this will be very tightly directed, even to the point of npc's telling you what portal to take.  Don't fight the path.  Just complete the indicated quests until you have your Artifact Weapon in your own hands.

Part of the initial set up at the class hall will be to select a starting zone. You then are sent into the Broken Isles to start questing.  Before leaving Dalaran, however, you should also take a minute to check in with your profession trainers, primary and secondary, and take time during your initial adventuring to do some gathering, because quest starter items will drop when you gather for the first time and you need them to get the ball rolling.

Then, go down to Krasus Landing and begin your questing in your selected zone.  You should be able to finish two named areas within that zone about the time you reach level 101.  Again, take time to gather, fish, even do some archaeology on this first trip, and if you have any profession quests, be sure to complete them now, before you return to Dalaran.

Step 2.  

Once you level to 101, you should return to Dalaran. You will receive a summons to report to your order hall.  This will be about recruiting your champions and sending them on their first missions. There is likely to be other quests at the order hall as well, so look through all the rooms before leaving.

You should have one or more profession quests to turn in, so complete them and pick up the follow ups. Make it a priority to complete these profession quest series.  These have been integrated into the game very carefully and reward your attention at this point.  First, they are designed to send you to the same locations as your major quest lines, and you can use the xp at this point. Even more importantly, you need to hit professions early to get the most good out of them.  You don’t want to reach level 110, still making level 715 gear.

This will become a standing priority for Legion activities:
  1. Complete Order Hall quests, 
  2. Profession quests
  3. Zone quests through the main storylines
  4. Earn a few skill points in gathering and secondary professions on each trip.
Find a few fishing pools for a few skill points, look for gathering opportunities, and pick up all the treasure chests you come across; you should find at least 3 treasure chests.  In a little while, you will need order hall resources and we need to begin gathering them.By the time I had finished the next major quest hub and named location, I had leveled to 102.  At that point, return to Dalaran.

Step 3.  

Step 3 starts when you level to 102.  This stage focuses on housekeeping and getting to know your class order.   At level 102, your class hall will allow you to complete the quest series to claim your two other artifact weapons.  Go ahead and take these on now, even if you don’t ever want to play the other specs.  Do it for the story content, and for the xp.  These are well designed, story-filled and instanced quests, that can be a little challenging.

At this point, you are probably also waiting for your Order Hall mission “Troops in the field” to be complete.  This is a 4 hour mission, so you may have to return to your chosen Zone for story quests, or wait overnight.  When it completes, you want to return to your order hall as well.

Completing this quest will allow you to begin selecting Order Hall Advancements.   My choice, at this stage, is for the bonus upgrades, rather than the increased success chance, mostly because I have always found my missions to have at least a 100% chance.  The increase affects the chance for bonus rewards.  In my experience, quest loot upgrades happen fairly frequently.
Following this choice, you may have another mandatory mission to send your minions on.  We need to wait for that quest to complete.  When it does, turn it in to your advisor.  He will have a white exclamation point, promising a quest in the future.  Meanwhile, roam through your order hall one more time, looking for any quests.  Make note of the location of :
1.    The Quartermaster
2.    Recruiter of lesser minions
3.    Order Hall Upgrader

There will be more staff to come in the future, but these are who you need for now.  At this point, I am usually about halfway through level 102.

Step 4.  

There are 2 things left for this level. 
•    Khadgar has a quest for you in Dalaran; “A Falling Star.” 
•    You  may have quests from one or both professions to complete.
Travel to Dalaran and talk to Khadgar.  Pick up his quest and travel to the Broken Isles to complete it now.  When you have the object, return to Khadgar to turn it in.  Don’t get distracted with other questing at this point.  Meet him in the central tower and complete his following quests as well.  When you return from the Exodar, travel to your Order hall with the Heart.  The quest line ends here, for today.

The Class Hall upgrade should be complete by now.  Make sure you have a mission going on the mission board.   Also make sure that you are adding your Artifact power to your weapon and upgrading it at the weapon forge whenever possible.

Now turn to your profession quests.  Again, we can blend these in with side quests to the same area, but don’t fill up your log with every quest you come across.  You are always free to gather any treasure chests or Silver spawns.  Focus on your Profession quests and complete the next round.  These should easily take you to level 103.

Step 5.  

Back in Dalaran, turn in your profession quests.  There should be follow up quests available, so take them as well.  Continue to complete profession quests until your trainer have no more to offer.  Now, you need to set up a quest for yourself.  You have just learned a batch of recipes; some are ilvl 715 and some are 735.   Take the time now to make yourself at least one of those items.  At this level, your drops have been 695 – 715, so this is the one moment in the game when these patterns will be useful to you. This means you will have to gather resources, so begin to identify where in your current questing zone your resources will drop.  You’ll probably have a few of these already.

In your Order Hall, your advisor should have another quest for you.  Complete his series of assignments, including missions from the mission table, and quests that will involve extensive travel.  Continue to pursue the Order Hall missions until none remain.  Be ready, however, for a number of quests that will need to be completed at this point, all related to order halls.

This round of Order Hall quests will lead to the completion of the first chapter of the Order Story.  The culmination of this will probably be a dungeon quest as well.  It’s time to complete this dungeon now in order to finish this chapter.

At the same time, the questing zone that you started in is probably near to completing the major story line there, as well.  All the zones but Valsharah require you to complete a dungeon to finish the story and reclaim one of the Pillars of Creation.  Do whatever is necessary to finish that first Pillar of Creation and to complete the first chapter of your order hall. By the time I had finished all of this, I was just into level 104.   This will end Stage 1 of Legion.

This first stage has been focused on preparation and set up.  In fact, we have done very little of the classic quest hub adventuring that has been typical in the past.  The storyline of the individual zones will become more prominent in the next stage.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Portal Hubs

This is a quick map I put together to help me with traveling throughout Azeroth, and particularly the Old World.  The excellent Order Hall quests often ask me to travel to various places in Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms, so I put together this quick guide to help me to get as close as possible before I have to begin my overland journey.  

To use the map, you must know where you want to go.  Then, find the portal destination closest to it.  Consult the legend (in the upper left corner) to see where that portal originates.  

For example, a Death Knight order hall quest sends me to Scarlet Monastery.  I look at the approximate location in northern Eastern Kingdoms and find that the Dalaran Crater is the closest portal (Bring a glider...).  Consulting the legend, I see that this portal originates in the New Dalaran Tower
Link to Larger Version
Click the image for a page with a larger version

My jewelcrafting trainer has another quest, Socket to Me, that sends me to various locations throughout the extended Warcraft world, and this map is perfect for making each leg of the journey as efficient as possible.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Warcraft movie: a first look

Now that the Warcraft movie has been out for its opening weekend in the U.S.  It's time to give it first impression.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and would whole-heartedly recommend it to anyone who has ever played and enjoyed WoW.  All the familiar elements, all the rich artistry, all the deep lore is present here and better than ever.  And you owe it to yourself to watch it on the biggest screen you can find, and in 3D.  The art and cinematography are well worth the commitment.  Watching this next year on DVD is not going to be the same, because it's the overall immersive experience you're going for, here.

I loved the development of Khadgar from his early, uncertain theories to his more confident schemes at the end.  I liked the interaction between Khadgar and Lothar, a bond that seemed destined to develop into a lasting friendship.  The kind of friendship that Lothar and Llane were supposed to have.   I like the way that Khadgar has become a major heroic figure within Warcraft overall and our constant companion in Warlords of Draenor.

I also liked the re-structuring of Garona's character as a character awakening to the nobility of humans and striving to maintain her honor.  I like the way the story of her "betrayal" of King Llane was presented and it gave me a better understanding of the things that happened to her subsequently.  I wish that I had seen the movie before those scenes with Garona and Khadgar at his tower in Zangarra in Warlords. The emotional payoff when when we freed her from the influence of Gul'dan would have been exponentially greater.

Watching this movie gave me a much more concrete understanding of each of these characters than I ever had from playing the games alone.  This kind of portrayal makes these characters much more real to me, and whenever I run across references to Lothar or Llane, I will immediately reference these iconic figures.  If I had seen this movie a year ago, my Warlords expansion experience would have been much better.

I think that Blizzard should make more of these films.  A trilogy, at least, through the Second War.

Note that there are heavy spoilers in the following section where I discuss the limitations of the movie.

Many Characters:
There are a huge number of main characters in this movie, and in the short 2 hours we've been given, it's hard to learn them all and begin to sympathize with them.  This is particularly true for someone who has never played anything in Blizzard's Azeroth, but even for people who have a passing familiarity with the game, it's good to have a list of players.  The movie just doesn't have a lot of time to spend on establishing motivations and allegiances, so by the time you've got Durotan and Orgrim sorted out, the movie is well under way and you've got to wonder what else you've missed.  The problem is compounded by the fact that all of these characters are spread across many different groups

For the Humans:
  • Llane Wrynn, King of Stormwind
  • Anduin Lothar (no, not that Anduin), close friend of the king and General of Stormwind's armies.
  • Taria, Llane's wife and Lothar's sister
  • Callun Lothar, son of Lothar
  • Dwarves in Ironforge
  • Visiting Elves
For the Wizards:
  • Medivh, the Guardian
  • Khadgar, a lapsed incipient Guardian
  • the Kirin Tor mages in Dalaran (Antonidas, et al)
For the Good Orcs
  • Durotan, chief of the Frostwolf Clan
  • Ogrim Doomhammer, apparently now Durotan's buddy
  • Draka, wife of Durotan who is great with child
  • Go'el, the newborn son of Draka, later to become Thrall
For the Bad Orcs
  • Gul'dan, warlock and wielder of fel magic.  Leader of the Fel Horde
  • Blackhand, leader of the Blackrock Clan and nominal Warchief of the Horde
  • Garona, a half-orc prisoner of the Orcs, and later their spymaster.

So with 13 characters and additional factions, groups, and organizations, this is simply too many characters to keep track of over a 2 hour film, much less grow close to.  In addition, following so many characters dilutes the impact of events on any single one.

Too much happening in the plot
In reality we were watching two films, with the first being about the Humans vs the corrupt Guardian, and the second about the struggle between the Good and Fel orcs.  Each of these would have been a significant movie on its own, but trying to tell both stories simultaneously in a 120 minute format was simply overwhelming.

In the end, we couldn't develop emotional attachments for any of them.  Nor could we easily follow the twisting machinations of each of these sub-plots. For example, Khadgar went to Dalaran to visit the Kirin Tor and convince them that Medivh was corrupted.  What actually came out of that meeting was never clear, nor was the relevance of what the secret spirit in the cube, Alodi, told Khadgar.  We just didn't have enough time to explain.

Embrace Tragedy
As is usually the problem for Warcraft, there were no clear winners or losers.  No clear resolution of the story, simply a retelling of a series of events.  Looking at this more closely, there were really three storylines being followed here, all of them ending tragically.

The first is with King Llane and Lothar, who want to drive the invading orcs out of Azeroth and keep them from pillaging the humans. Ultimately, they fail to do this during the events of the film, with the dark portal temporarily re-opened allowing countless more orcs to stream through, Gul'dan still very much in power, and the orcs still a major presence.

The second story is with Durotan, the chief of the Frostwolf clan.  He wants to keep his clan safe, keep his family together, and oppose the destructive influence of Gul'dan.  Ultimately, he fails to do this with his clan destroyed, and himself defeated in Mok'gora with Gul'dan.  In addition, his wife Draka also appeared to be killed.  By the end of the movie, Durotan was definitely a tragic figure.

The third story was the betrayal by the guardian Medivh of the humans to the demons of the Burning Legion.  Khadgar managed to discover Medivh's fel taint and destroy him before he was entirely able to transform into a manifestation of Sargeras, preventing the ultimate consumption of Azeroth.  Nevertheless, Khadgar could not prevent the betrayal itself, which allowed Medivh to open the dark portal that gave Guldan and the orcs entry into Azeroth in the first place.

None of these stories are heroic successes, nor are they presented that way in the film.  In fact, the climax of the film is when Lothar returns to the Orc camp to retrieve the body of King Llane and it provides a moment of triumph only when Lothar is able to defeat Blackhand.  Sadly, this is merely a hollow victory, since it means nothing in the overall progress of events.

And finally, we have the story of Garona interwoven among all of them.  Her story is of one who was looking for a place to call home, a place where she could live.  The majority of the orcs rejected her for her half breed status, and when she appealed to Durotan, he could only reply that she would be safer among the humans.  The humans did reach out to her, first through Queen Taria who gifted her with the dagger that Garona would later use to kill Llane, and later through the romantic overtures of Lothar, who would later despise her as a traitor.  In the end, Garona found a place with Gul'dan, the one person she hated the most.

Hers is a wonderful story of tragedy, but it loses its impact among so many other personal tragedies.  More importantly, it does not provide the emotional uplift that a viewer associates with a herioc adventure movie.

In the end, the failing of the movie for Western audiences is one of basic storytelling.  A story places a character in a setting, from which arises a conflict that develops and is resolved.  The problem with the Warcraft film was that in every story the central conflict was unable to be resolved by anything except failure.  Each of the main characters has an ultimate objective that they singularly fail to achieve, except for Khadgar.  By rights, the main character in the story should be the mage, but that certainly isn't the way the director framed the conflict.

Director Duncan Jones was aware of these limitations, himself.
I kinda feel like we’d bitten so much off with what we were trying to achieve. We had to introduce all of these characters, introduce all of this world to people who may not know anything about it. I think the fact that they got the portal closed was enough. You know, whatever happens next will happen next. But that kind of felt like a pretty good chunk size. In two hours, we can get that done. Anything more, you’re kind of running into a convolution of epilogues and of story."  Gizmodo Duncan Jones interview
And this is the reason that it was so badly received by movie critics. They were looking for traditional storytelling with bold conflicts, developing characters, and clear resolutions. Jones was just trying to get the portal closed.

As a long-time player of Warcraft games, I am accustomed to Blizzard's style of storytelling.  Tales must be told in such a way that neither the Horde nor the Alliance are seen to be the clear winners. Clear and decisive resolutions are avoided in favor of open-ended and ambiguous narratives that create the maximum potential for future plotlines.   But that isn't the stuff of heroic fantasy novels and movies.  In fantasy such as the Lord of the Rings, it's important that the good guys win, that honor and heroism are rewarded.  That isn't what you found here.

More prosaically, if audiences were looking for a feel-good, triumphant tale of good overcoming evil, with the heroes coming out all right in the end, they simply weren't going to find it in this film.  Call it complex, subtle, nuanced if you wish, just don't call it a summer blockbuster.

In short, the Warcraft movie was a narrative that delivered the rich collection of lore surrounding the events of the first war, but didn't adequately create a formal Story to frame the events.  Movie critics were looking for a framework that didn't exist.

Watching this convinced me that this was made for WoW fans, and that this was the right choice.  I welcomed these major figures brought to life, and the visualizations of Ironforge and Stormwind and Goldshire and Karazhan.  While it did not have everything, what it did include was done well.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Rumble in the Tanaan Jungle

It's getting a little dark out there in the killing fields of Tanaan Jungle.  It's an inevitability and a weakness of this style of game play but now we are reaching that stage once again.  It's something that we've seen before, but it's come earlier, and is likely to be more pronounced this expansion than ever before, including Mists.

I'm talking about the way the game plays out when a majority of players start reaching the ilevel cap and there's nothing more for any of those players to do.  We see the result in the mechanics of the apexis zones.  Rare mobs that used to require help to defeat are now regularly soloed by nearly any class, including my elemental shaman geared as a healer.  Bosses that used to take minutes to kill, are now down in less than 30 seconds by most adequately-geared characters, including my hunter.  If you aren't in at least an adjacent area when you hear a boss yell, there isn't much point in moving because you aren't going to make it in time to tag it.   Many classes, like my protection paladin, are now regularly rounding up 5-10 mobs in a zone and grinding them down, clearing whole areas at a time.  And believe me, I am a casual WoW player. 

The first casualties in all of this are the alts that are being newly leveled and don't have the same level gear.  It is very hard for them to compete.  The same is true for some classes, like my under-geared shadow priest.  And the frustration is becoming evident in areas where we used to find a modicum of cooperation that is now replaced by kill-stealing, ninja-ing completion items, and popping blood relics while someone else tries to destroy the bleeding hollow cultist that spawned it. I regularly enter an apexis area like the Fel Forge and find it devoid of mobs, as I fly in circles looking for something to kill. 

It isn't that anyone is doing anything wrong.  This is the logical result of how the zone is designed.  The players themselves are experiencing a kind of hysterical blood thirst as we all try to complete this now-tedious and trivial task in Tanaan Jungle as quickly as possible.

This is a symptom of a larger problem.  Many, many players have already reached saturation with this content, as I talked about in my last post.  For characters relying on LFR drops and Baleful gear bought with apexis, there isn't anywhere else for them to go, and many of them have already acquired the best gear they are likely to get, topping out at around ilevel 695-700.  With all 695 baleful gear, 3 crafted pieces at 715, and a few 705 trinkets et al from Kazzak there is literally nothing else to obtain.  Archimonde drops 685 gear in LFR so that's no help.  Two of my characters can literally gain no better gear from gathering apexis or anything else, short of raiding.

We are still looking at 9-10 months of this expansion.

Back in June, when Blizzard re-introduced the potential for flying, they also listed the requirements that would eventually unlock it.  Like many people, I began to chip away at the basic achievements.  While some people balked at the scale of what was required, most people recognized that it encapsulated the core content of what the game offered.  This wasn't some obscure "Insane in the membrane"-style achievement but simply asked players to work through the main features they had built. 

I'm not an extreme WoW player, but like many people with the basic goal in mind,  I had completed the requisite Draenor Pathfinder achievement when flying dropped at the beginning of September.  That means that I had already completed the heart of the game's content.  For anyone with flying, there's very little more of substance for them to do.

Now, apparently, I am just filling in the corners.  This is an expected phase at the end of every expansions, but something is different now.  Put simply, Mists of Pandaria was a full featured expansion with many different experiences spread across many substantial content patches.  There were several storylines to complete, factions to gain reputation with, whole islands of additional content to explore.  Draenor simply isn't that feature rich.

The thing for me is, I'm having fun in Draenor.  I'm NOT sick of the expansion, or ready to move on.  I understand the complaints about Orc Fatigue, but the truth is I wish there was more for us to experience.  I understand the motivation to unsubscribe and come back when Legion launches; I just don't feel like I'm ready to do that.  And it was to reach that realization that I had to write my way through this whole post. At least it will get the struggle out of my head.  In the meantime, I'll see you at the iron front.  I'll be the one tanking the wargronn, 'cause it's the fastest way to finish.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Echoes of Orgrimmar: content gaps in Warcraft

With the announcement of the new expansion, Blizzard has basically slammed the door on Warlords of Draenor.  I don't know if that's a fair assessment or not, but that is certainly the way it feels to me right now.  I've been waiting for some further communication from the snowstorm that would give me any indication that they've got something further planned, but at this point they have taken every opportunity to shut that option down.

At first, there were some statements that seemed to leave the door open for more development on Draenor.  For example, our hero Ion Hazzicostas declaimed that while there were definitely no further raids planned on Draenor, he did sort of mumble that they weren't entirely done.  But when Cory came afterward, he again seemed to quash the whole idea.  The WoW team was definitely moving on and any further work on Draenor would only delay the ready date for Legion.  Nope, Draenor was out the door and we are looking on to the next show.

On the other hand,  Ion and his fellow lead designer types have also repeatedly assured us that the Siege gap of 14 months was too long.  They have learned their lesson, they earnestly profess, and it's never going to get that bad again.  But let's examine that claim.

If the beta for Legion will be out before the end of the year, that suggests to me around December.  Blizzcon attendees will fly home with shiny beta keys in their goody bags, and a few weeks to prepare for a December 15 beta server.  If we follow customary pathways, the Legion beta will be 6 months long, putting us at June 15, 2016.  I'm going to add a month for the promised pre-expansion activities and expect to see Legion in July.

This means two things:  First, that will very nearly be an entire year between patch 6.2 and the next expansion.  This is the thing they sincerely claimed they didn't want to do. Content droughts are bad for players, but not necessarily bad for game companies if they get all their players back at the release of the new expansion.

 Second, while the "year between content" goal won't be achieved, they will have made good on their intention to release expansions faster than every 2 years.  That tentative July date is at the 17-18 month mark, and they will have shaved 6 months off their delivery cycle.  A faster expansion cycle is good for game companies, because the pulse of expansion purchases flows into their accounts more quickly.  It isn't necessarily good for players, because it requires more cash and doesn't guarantee any more content.  Blizzard is showing that they are perfectly capable of creating 12 month content gaps, even in a 18-month expansion cycle.

I have a gut feeling in another direction, however.  My hope is that Blizzard still has an ace up it's sleeve and has already finished a final activity zone that they are going to release in January.