So, What Have You Been Playing Lately, Steve?

After playing some Guild Wars 2 for a while, I finally decided to fire up Mists of Pandaria and see what WoW has been up to. Although I had a higher-level death knight, I decided to yank my good-old level 70 arms warrior from retirement (the undead fellow who still decorates the banner of this site) and see how I fared.

Checking out Pandaria on this guy, of course, required that I play through Lich King and Cataclysm as well. This dampened my enthusiasm, as I’d already played through a lot of that stuff on my death knight, and I hate repeating content. So I opted for dungeon finder, and found myself having a ball. As the ultimate non-commitment tool, dungeon finder allowed me to sail through XP and gear acquisition without having to repeat the Lich King quests I’d previously completed. And if I screwed up, it was no big deal–it wasn’t like I’d ever see any of the people I was grouped with again. The Wrath dungeons are a lot of fun, so I enjoyed myself quite a bit, and my warrior was 80 in no time.

Playing through Cataclysm was less fun. The XP curve from 80 to 85 was slower, and I found the dungeons in this expansion far less enjoyable. It’s not that they were more difficult really; it’s that the same tricks seemed to be used over and over, as I was endlessly looking for burning spots on the ground to avoid. To pad my XP gains, I ended up playing through the whole underwater zone as well, which I found abysmal (pun intended). I mean, it was fine and all, but the design of the quests felt a little uninspired. The one exception was the naga city where you enter a vision and play through the invasion that had happened there–I thought that was a cool line with a nice payoff. I was surprised how buggy the content was after all this time, though. Because Blizzard does such a nice job of polishing their work, any problem really stands out. I ran into several places where I had to abandon quests and do them over again because a trigger didn’t work right or something. Still, all things considered, it was far beyond the level of polish most MMOs attain. I hit 85 and was forced to leave, even though I would have liked to check out Deepholm. I flew around that zone and it looked fantastic.

I’m currently level 87 in Pandaria, and so far I’ve been extremely impressed. Both the solo content and the dungeons have been really well done. Cut scenes and cinematics are regularly worked into the content, and the pacing feels very nice. The WoW team has gotten a handle on using phasing to effectively tell stories and show change. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the culmination of the Jade Forest quests was extremely impressive. This zone felt like the best example of storytelling I’ve seen in any MMO to date–newer titles included.

At this point, the biggest negative I can point out is that WoW feels burdened by its aging quest mechanics. The whole paradigm of walking into a hub and loading up my quest journal feels so old and dated. I much prefer the GW2 approach of entering an area and being given objectives relevant to what I can see going on around me. Instead of being ordered to kill 10 of this and collect 8 of that, I’m urged to defend the keep, drive out the centaurs, and other goal-oriented play. It’s a distinction purely of presentation–you end up collecting X of this and killing Y of that–but one method makes the world feel much more alive than the other. The rare moments in WoW when I can forget about the quest journal and just engage with the content are by far my favorites.

Not sure what I’ll do when I hit the level cap, but for now I’m very much enjoying my return to Azeroth–monkey poop and all.

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