Apr 19 2011

Bugs! Get ’em off me!


For a variety of reasons, for several months, I’ve not been able to play more than a few hours each week, moving back into the realm of being a much maligned ‘casual’ player. It’s a distinction and tag that really irritates me, primarily because it’s waved around as a derogative term: “you’re coming into this instance with level-appropriate gear and aren’t yet raiding? you’re just a casual, so we’ll kick you”.

It’s been particularly hard for Belmann as both healer and DPS. His shadow spec gear is not particularly great, and he’s not intended to be primarily a DPS other than for fun and solo play. So when I got sick of the abuse in PUGs, I’d play as DPS rather than heals, and found I was getting abused for not putting out enough DPS either (ironically, usually because the group as a whole was not putting out enough, and he was not top of the charts). It was a bit easier for Morkhaeus, because as a fire mage he’s able to pump out respectable DPS without stellar gear, and I think because the average player has different expectations about a pure DPS character: “oh, he’s just DPS, he can stand up the back and pew-pew”.

One of my most experienced guild mates and fellow dwarf priest, Papaheal, hit the nail on the head a few weeks ago in guild chat after I was expressing my despair about the state of PUGs – “this expansion has been really hard on casual players”. What I think has happened for players like me who’ve spent the last few months with limited play time is this: the time-rich but talent-less have managed to brute force and face roll their way through heroic instances enough times to accumulate some gear and get over the hump of difficulty. Blizzard made no secret of intending the instances (heroic and normal) to be difficult and challenging, but there’s a large cadre of players raised on Wrath Of The Lich King who have no patience – they expect and demand that every instance boss be one-shotted, that there be no wipes, and even at extremes, no deaths. I would hate to be a tank in these times, but I’ve got to say that healing these instances with PUGs is painful. It’s a part of the game that has become Not Fun. And if I’m paying to play, why should I waste my limited time and money on doing something that’s Not Fun. So Belmann is caught in a cleft stick – in order to live up to the expectations of being able to heal through tough instances when others in the group are under-geared, uncooperative and just plain stupid, with no wipes and no deaths, he needs to become over-geared for the instances, which he cannot do without running the instances.

Sigh. I didn’t intend for this to turn into a rant about the pain of healing PUGs, I really didn’t. It’s pretty obvious that Blizzard’s plan to reward “needed” classes for queueing in the random LFD (read: healers and tanks) is in direct recognition that tanks and healers don’t want to run Cataclysm instances in PUGs. Blizzard can’t be unaware of the root reason though – it’s not that the game is challenging, it’s that there are a substantial number of complete ass-hats playing. Sigh. Why are people so unkind?

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, bugs. Of the six and eight legged variety, not the borken code type. Although I’ve seen two of the latter in recent weeks.

For a first, at the time I write there’s something wrong with VuhDo, which has evolved to be central to Belmann’s healing play: on some instances, particularly in raid content, it was causing my framerate to drop from 60+ FPS to 1 or 2 FPS. This was… Not Fun. I thought it was my computer blowing up, and it took quite a while to think to start turning off addons. And the other bug was something I’ve not seen for a long time – Maarisuu took a few steps North East of XXX Keep in the Blasted Lands, and fell through the world. Run, run, run, woop! Try as I could, I couldn’t find the spot again, and forgot to get a screen shot.

Because I’ve been playing in small chunks, I’ve been tending to pick up the reins on the alts, and particularly on Glymly the hunter and Maarisuu the baby prot warrior. Neither of which are babies anymore, in the last week they’ve both reached 60 and headed to the Outlands. I deliberately took them off through different zones to level, with Glymly hanging around the Easter Kingdoms, and Maarisuu roaming Kalimdoor. And with one exception, the reworked old content is a blast.

So far for levelling I’ve found that there is some truth in labelling hunters as “easy mode”, but I’m not sure that I’d recommend one for new players. Glymly is Beast Master spec, because for me that seems to be what a hunter should be about, and in general terms he goes through solo content like a hot knife through butter. The advantage of travelling with a personal tank in the form of a large irate black bear cannot be understated: usually he can just send the pet rushing off into the middle of a group of mobs, let the bear get aggro, then DPS from the edge without being hit at all. The hunter can pretty well snooze through any quests that involve killing ten rats or collecting ten rat tails. On the other hand I think that playing a hunter effectively is a subtle and complex task. I spend a lot more time watching both DPS and threat meters, and making concious decisions about what attack to throw out so as not to peel mobs off the bear. I’d call it easy mode for people who don’t need an easy mode.

On the other hand it took me a while to figure out how to effectively use the warrior, maybe because she’s a Prot warrior and really not designed to be able to pump out much damage. In the end I realised that if possible I should try to pick up three or four mobs at once and smack them down using a mixture of AOE attacks and direct walloping. Part of the slow realisation was that I’m not used to having a heavily armoured character that can absorb a lot of damage, or in the case of the sword-and-plank character, deflect the damage. For my first character, Giladris the badly specced rogue, pulling several mobs was suicide, and the same went for Belmann, particularly when he was in holy spec. Morkhaeus had a better time as a mage, but only if he could burn down mobs before they got into melee range.

One fun thing I’ve had with Maarisuu for quite a few levels was a pair of trinkets that fitted neatly against each other. The first got picked up in Thousand Needles, and summons a ghost Tauren to fight along side. I don’t think it’s damange scales with level, but on the other hand it definitely provided enough DPS to make it a valuable assistance from around level 35 up to 61 where she is now. The companion trinket is a hoot – it summons a sour-tempered Goblin nurse that stands around critiscising your lifestyle and putting down a good amount of healing. With these two, I found that I could easily wade into a pack of five or six mobs of higher level, use the trinkets, switch to defensive stance and just slug away without sweating.

Blizzard have been true to their aim to make levelling faster. Each of these two toons is wearing two or three heirloom pieces, which piles on experience at a blinding rate, but throughout the old world they have ensured that the collect-ten-rat-tail quests do not require killing one hundred rats. Most of the time quest items are pretty well 100% drop rate, and spawn rates and mob density ensure there’s little mindless grinding. Couple that with the quest helper facilities pointing you to the right area, and helping you see nearby questing areas, and it means that you can pick up a handful of quests and do a circuit out to satisfy all of them at once. There’s not many instances of the old style of questing where you are sent to the other side of the map to kill ten rats, return to the quest giver, and then get sent all the way across again to kill the boss rat. Quest hubs are intelligently placed, you can usually pick up several quests at once, and the quests are designed to minimise travel time.

Another really subtle change that makes levelling fast? Quest mobs have their names highlighted in red. It’s a little thing, but makes a big difference: the quest helper and map modifications get you to roughly the right area quickly, and once there it’s obvious who you need to clobber. Of course there’s a downside – in areas where the mobs have a high spawn rate, once you kill the ten rats, the red name plate goes away… and you can forget that the rats are still there eating your face. Oops.

Most of the new quests are fun. With one exception so far none of the revised old world zones have pointless quests. It’s a mixture of carefully written quest lines that really do advance a story, and culling of pointless quests. Even the kill-ten-rat quests are written so that there’s a reason to kill the rats, and killing the ten rats advances a coherent and cogent story. When you get near the end of the quests in a quest hub, there’ll be a breadcrumb quest to get you to the next hub, and the same for the zones.

A great example of this reworking is Un’Goro Crater. In the vanilla game, Un’Goro was one of those zones that people cordially loathed, or at best tolerated. It was full of dinosaurs that would eat your brain, gorillas that would tear off your arms, and bugs that would poison you. There was one quest hub at the north edge of the map, and you spent a ridiculous amount of time crossing all the way across the zone, a quest at a time. All gone. They moved the main quest hub to pretty well the dead center, and added an additional smaller hub. All the quests are linked into one overarching story, with a great reveal of the Titan’s purpose behind Un’Goro Crater – essentially it’s a big petri dish – and many quests slyly acknwoledge the old content. And you get to go questing with Don Quixote. Ok, he’s a deluded paladin that rewards a very nice shield, but he’s fun. You spend some time helping him defeat the ‘dragons’, then ‘rescue’ some very confused maidens, one of whom is a male blood elf, lay to rest some angry spirits with kind words, and generally tilt at windmills. The chain culminates in a hilarious attempt to down the devilsaur boss, which results in the paladin racing pell-mell around the zone with you on the back of his horse as he hands you pieces of his armour to throw at the boss. Result? A naked paladin, a dead dinosaur, and a really nice blue quest reward.

It’s a bit sad that most players probably won’t see the revised content unless they progress alts, because the revised zones are superb. This is really highlighted by the zone after Un’Goro, which is Silithus. For some reason the zone has been barely touched by the revisions, and it remains a bug ridden hell, with a lot of quests requiring you to travel to the edges of the zone out from the central quest hub, killing 30 of this and 40 of that and gathering 20 of these low drop rate items. A few of the more annoying quests have been trimmed, and the Sceptre of the Sands quest line seems to be gone (or else Maarisuu was too low a level to see the starting points of the quest), but in general the zone felt like vanilla content. The writing of the quests was comparably clunky as well: often it was difficult to tell where to go and what to do when you got there, and the whole zone just feels like a dull grind. I finished up the quests and got out of there as quickly as I could.

So both of those dwarfs have hit Hellfire Peninsula at the same time, and I’ll try to keep them in lockstep progression again. It’s startling how much work Blizzard have put into the levelling process, particularly if you are levelling alts. Each of these characters has two or three heirloom pieces, and when the experience buff of that is combined with the experience buff from the guild, they rapidly out-level both the content in zones and the resources in the zone – several times I had to take them back to previous zones to grind up mining and skinning simply so they could strip mine the zones they were currently chainsawing their way through.

To my mind, though, the levelling process has been enhanced through three fairly subtle changes:

1) by adding more quest hubs and flight points within each zone, considerably less time is taken up by just getting around the zones, and there are far fewer instances of being sent a long way just to hand in or pick up one quest;
2) in the lower levels, up to about level 50, the drop rates on quest items is pretty well 100%, and even from 50 to 60 it’s generally high;
3) the XP gain from gathering professions is a very nice bonus, making it very worth while (and quite lucrative) to stop and smell the roses before tearing them up by their roots.

So over the weekend I thought I’d try heroics again. And wish I hadn’t, it was a throughly miserable experience. I pulled Morkhaeus out of the closet, ran some dailys to limber up, and looked for a random normal dungeon. That went well, he was obviously geared enough (as was the rest of the group) to pretty well face-roll through the instance, whichever it was. Too many names to remember now – it was the dwarf city where you get to ride on drakes half way through and carpet bomb mobs. Virtually all the loot that dropped was disenchanted, other than a cloak that was a minor improvement for Mork’s intelligence. So it was pretty clear that this random set of five people, presumably a representative sample, had gotten all the gear worth getting from normals already.

I rolled up my sleeves when a Guild heroic run was organised, and we went into the instance in Uldum. We had a moderately new tank, but a very experienced healer and rogue, and a reasonably experienced mage, with all of us notionally geared for the heroic content, and Papa and Sammy tricked out in early raid gear. And it was a miserable, horrible disaster. We wiped endlessly on the first boss, gave up and headed to the crocodile boss, and wiped endlessly on him as well. I think we wiped about 14 times, with Papa and Sammy (rightly) encouraging us to keep trying so we could improve. But we didn’t. With gear that Blizzard deemed to be instance appropriate, we could not generate enough DPS to burn down the bosses before Papa blew through his mana pool and the heals dried up. The numbers just did not work. It really felt like we needed to be over-geared to get through it.

I gave up in despair, changed to Belmann, and Papa switched into shadow spec so we could try again. And the same problem existed – insufficient DPS to get through the boss before Belmann’s mana dried up.

Really at this point I’m ready to give up attempting to progress into end-game content. The levelling process for the alts through revised content is amusing, and I can certainly level professions to their max. Perhaps I should turn the game into a game of auction houses instead and aim to max out gold. Pretty well anything to allow me to login for an hour or so every few days and not spend the time being told that I suck.

Enough of this. Next time lots of pictures, rather than a wall of text banged out on the train.