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Friday, September 14, 2012

Mini-Review: A Brief Return to Azeroth

Last week I discovered that Blizzard was handing out 7 days of free time for past WoW subscribers. Being the cheap, curious bastard that I am, I took advantage of the offer to both play for free and to check out the most recent patch. WoW recently underwent a major overhaul in preparation for the Mists of Pandaria expansion which goes live on September 25th.

A profound feeling of "holy crap there's nothing to do" pervades WoW right now, and as a result I didn't really spend a lot of time actively playing. I spent a few hours dueling other players and PvPing in battlegrounds; I also did a little bit of brushing up on my classes via Elitist Jerks and Arena Junkies since I haven't played in months.

System Requirements and Performance

World of Warcraft was originally released in 2004. This is obviously not a super-demanding game by today's standards. Still, Blizzard has continued to make subtle tweaks to the game engine to keep things looking pretty. You've gotta admit, WoW is probably the best-looking eight-year-old-game around. I wasn't able to find a specific list of performance tweaks and visual improvements, but I did find this "blue post" from a Blizzard employee:

There are actually quite a lot of graphic engine improvements in Mists of Pandaria, however for the most part they are subtle. For example, improved shadowing, blending and enhancements to the fog effect.

Amongst the large list of information we hope to share with you is included a list of the new graphic engine improvements with some before and after screenshots to highlight what each one brings to the game.

Each one might be subtle but as a whole they bring an improved visual appearance to the game. :)

From the WoW launcher, you can choose whether to run the game in DX9 or DX11 mode, and additionally whether to launch the 32-bit or 64-bit client. I'm not sure exactly when these were added--I wasn't playing for the large majority of Cataclysm--but Blizzard has obviously kept on tweaking things. Here are the system sequirements for the upcoming expansion compared to the requirements of the last expansion pack:

  Cataclysm Min Pandaria Min Recommended My System
CPU Pentium 4 1.3 GHz
Athlon XP 1500+
Pentium D
Athlon 64 X2
Core 2 Duo 2.2 GHz
Athlon64 X2 2.6GHz
4.0 GHz i5-2500K
GPU GeForce FX
Radeon 9500
GeForce 6800
Radeon X1600 Pro (256 MB)
GeForce 8800 GT
Radeon HD 4830 (512 MB)
1 GB 560 Ti DX11
RAM 1 GB 2 GB (1 GB for XP) 4 GB 8 GB
HDD 25 GB -- -- --

While the minimum requirements took a sizeable jump, system requirements remain pretty low on the whole. Despite that, the new patch hasn't exactly been smooth sailing. Lots of people complained of performance issues via the forums, and one of my friends was seeing unusually low fps numbers after patching. I had him update his graphics drivers and remove a couple of UI addons and he eventually got things back to normal.

The game launcher's DX11/64-bit options

New Talent System and Abilities

As they've done prior to previous expansions, Blizzard totally revamped the talent system in the latest patch in preparation for MoP. Gone is the complex talent system with three distinct trees in which to place 50 or so talent points. In its place is a universal tiered system that presents one choice every 15 levels with all specializations of the same class choosing from the same talents. I saw the system described somewhere as a salad bar that lets you pile whatever you want on your plate. The updated talent calculator on the WoW site reflects all of the recent changes.

The new talent system is interesting in that most of the time you could see yourself using any of the three available talents per tier. Some are obviously aimed more towards PvP and others might not mesh as well with your particular spec's spell rotation, but you're forced to make some interesting decisions. With that being said, the system feels pretty dumbed-down in that there really is no wrong way to spec any more - just about every combination is viable.

Under the old system, players usually ended up tabbing out to the Armory or Elitist Jerks to simply copy either the "standard" spec for their class or the spec of a prominent player. That definitely wasn't the most elegant solution, but it helped to distinguish those players who put at least a tiny bit of effort into their character versus those who randomly clicked buttons until their talent tree was filled out. It's great that things are becoming more user-friendly; at the same time, it's going to be that much harder to find 25 competent, like-minded individuals to fill out a raid group.

I played WoW for a month during the Scroll of Resurrection 2.0 promotion earlier this year, so I had a level 85 Death Knight and Paladin at my disposal for this past week. DK gameplay was pretty similar despite a few changes, but my Retribution Paladin felt pretty different. Specifically, certain abilities like heals or Consecration were confined to the Holy or Protection specs and are no longer available to Ret Paladins. These were core class abilities that were only used situationally by a Ret Paladin, but it still feels weird not to have them available. I felt like I had 4 or 5 fewer keybinds than before; everything seems streamlined and a bit simpler.

It's important to note that nothing currently in the game is balanced for level 85 players. Additional skills and talents are incoming as the playerbase moves to level 90 in MoP.

Overview of the new talent system, from Blizzard's Talent Calculator

Upcoming Mists of Pandaria Features

WoW Wiki has a pretty comprehensive list of MoP features on the expansion's dedicated page. In addition to the aforementioned talent system changes, the expansion adds the Pandaren race and Monk class as well as increases to the level and profession caps. There are also changes to both PvE and PvP in addition to the Pokemon-esque "pet battles" system.

Blizzard is constantly being pulled in two different directions when trying to nail down the difficulty level of content. Organized groups of players want to face a challenge, but at the same time random "pick up groups" (PUGs) need to be able to complete a dungeon without failing 15 times. Apparently the normal and hard-mode dungeons at the start of Cataclysm were pretty rough - I didn't play for the large majority of the last expansion. The proposed solution in MoP is the inclusion of Challenge Mode Dungeons: players' gear is scaled down to the level of the dungeon and the group is tasked with completing a speed run. I guess you could compare them to the old Zul'Aman bear runs that offered more of a challenge for established groups.

The other major addition is the pet battles system - players can level up a team of three pets and do battle with others. According to WoW Wiki, there's also the ability to "interact on an epic questline to defeat Master Pet Tamers across all of Azeroth." Sound familiar? It looks like Blizzard is trying to keep all of the amateur Pokemon Masters and their egos in check: "players will not know the names of players they are fighting; this is to avoid trash-talking." They're also continuing the Starcraft II tradition of only showing the player his win total rather than his complete win/loss record. More information on the system can be found here.

Final Thoughts

In the end, I highly doubt I'll be renewing. Then again, maybe Blizzard will introduce the "Scroll of Resurrection 3.0" and gives me MoP and a character transfer for free somewhere down the road.

I still think that WoW is arguably the best MMO around - nothing else on the market has anywhere near the amount of content available, and the game is pretty balanced all things considered. They've done a solid job both graphically and artistically to keep a game from 2004 looking pretty decent by today's standards. If everything else around is a WoW clone, why not just play the original?

For me, over four years (and somewhere in the neighborhood of $1000) spent playing the game is enough. Most of my friends have moved on and I feel like I've accomplished just about everything I could have wanted. Mists of Pandaria brings some interesting new features to the table, but I think I'll wait to see what Blizzard has planned for their next-gen MMO before I jump back into the genre.


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