Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Black Harvest: Spoiler-free thoughts on the "Green Fire" quest line

Shortly after getting home from work last night, I was making my rounds on the internet and stopping by a few of my favorite blogs and websites when I saw this on MMO-Champion's Blue Tracker:


After giggling like a school girl, I hopped off the couch and ran to the computer to start installing the PTR client and copy over my Warlock. A short while later I was flying across Pandaria in search of the item to start the quest chain.

While I didn't have time to completely finish the chain before I had to get back to live servers for my guild's raid, I did see probably 97% of it and I'm confident that I've seen enough to share my thoughts. As the post title indicates, I'm trying to keep this as free of spoilers as I can and simply focus on the overall experience. A full writeup with spoilers and screenshots will be up in a few days after I beat the last boss. However, I'm going to assume that you already know the following as they've been fairly heavily discussed:
  • It involves the Council of the Six Daggers.
  • You'll be sent to Outland.
  • There's a Black Temple solo-scenario.

 . . . seriously, I couldn't focus on progression at all last night. All I could think about was getting back to the PTR and curb-stomping some demonic heads.


As expected, the quest chain revolves around the Council of the Six Daggers that you can read about in an in-game book in various places. The Legacy of the Masters details the meeting between some of the most powerful Warlocks on Azeroth in which they discuss the threats facing their kind. In the wake of the Cataclysm it becomes clear that the other orders are becoming increasingly powerful and doing things that, only a few short years earlier, would have been thought impossible. Death Knights are beginning to control larger and more powerful undead servants, Shamans like Thrall are working with and manipulating the elements on a global scale and Mages are learning to unravel time itself. In short, these Warlocks are scared. There's power up for grabs and the concern is that, if they don't take some for themselves, their order will become outdated at best and wiped out at worst. The book ends with the various masters going off to research what they can from the most powerful of their defeated enemies.

This is where you come in.

The first thing that I noticed about this line is that it is, in every possible way, a Warlock adventure. Not just because it's a class specific quest chain and because the item which starts it is only usable by Warlocks, but because everything single aspect of it was crafted around our unique talents and abilities. You'll need to use spells that you likely haven't had on your action bars since Burning Crusade as well as ones that may still see regular use. You'll summon demons and enslave them, create Soulstones and bind things with healthstones. Your Eye of Kilrogg will make a welcome appearance and, to quote someone on the official forums, "Enslave Demon has never been this useful". At the end, you'll be faced with a boss encounter that will force you to use every tool in your kit. You simply will not survive this encounter if you don't know how to crowd control multiple enemies at once, bounce around with your portal and gateway, roll survival cooldowns and use your pet abilities in addition to your own. As someone who went through the Dragonwrath quest chain at the intended gear level, I feel like I can safely say that this particular encounter is harder. More on that later.


The long way around

This is not your standard Mists of Pandaria quest chain. Rather than simply talking to an NPC, killing a few mobs, gathering some apples off the ground and returning for a handful of gold and rep, you'll instead be taken to multiple continents in an adventure reminiscent of the old Onyxia attunement quests, if nowhere near as brutal. You won't be sent to UBRS fifteen times or told to go find Rexxar wandering around Desolace twelve more, but there is a fair amount of traveling to do. I made stops in no less than six different zones in order to track down clues, piece together information and find my way to the final scenario in the Black Temple.

While this is a welcome change of pace and exactly the sort of thing that players have been bemoaning the loss of when class quests were effectively removed (going to Shadowfang Keep at level 20 to create a weapon you've likely already outleveled is hardly the same), I actually feel like it should have been longer. The Onyxia chain was ridiculously tedious and frustrating and the original class quests that sent a level 20 Shaman from The Barrens all the way to the back end of Silverpine Forest for his water totem were just plain mean, but I feel like this particular chains swings just a tad too far in the opposite direction. I'd like to see one or two more big fights, a small quest or two to go grind mobs for an item and maybe even a trip into another old dungeon. It doesn't need to be quite as elaborate as the Karazhan line, but we've been talking about this quest chain for months and it could use a bit more love. Unlike the Onyxia chain that was done entirely on foot in zones where things can still kill you, most of the early parts of the Black Harvest chain are spent as a level 90 flying around in zones intended for players as many as thirty levels below you. I'd like to see some danger injected into it to break up some of the travel.


Loose ends

I love the lore of this line. Not only is it packed with Warlock flavor but, if you're paying attention, you'll see the story behind some of the new abilities we recieved in Mists of Pandaria and learn a bit about our new friends. At the same time, I feel like The Legacy of the Masters created more questions than the line answered. Six masters appear in the book, but only two of them seem to have made any sort of progress. What happened to Shin'fel or Ritssyn? What did we find in the Firelands? Did nothing come of investigating Cho'gall's followers? It may be too late to resolve this in a reasonable fashion, but I feel like answering these questions before heading to Outland would be a good way to also resolve the issue I laid out above of it not being quite long enough. A trip into the Firelands to find Ritssyn standing in Ragnaros' throne room where he simply tells you, "Nope, nothing to report" or finding Shin'fel outside the Bastion of Twilight with a small quest or two before sending you along would hit two birds with one stone.

The quest line was dropped from 5.1's release because it was supposedly unfinished, but it seems little has changed from the version that was in the 5.1 game files. There was an entire zone that seems to have been scrapped and carving out specific sections of the story has created some disjointed progression ("Oh hey, where'd you get this book? Go to Outland." - "What?") These things, along with some minor typos, can be fixed with some creative rewriting before it goes live, but I think it illustrates what I already feel. It should be (and was originally intended to be) longer.


"Let go of my hand, I can do this myself"

One of the complaints from nay-sayers and critics of WoW is that things have gotten too easy. Gear is handed to you, epics come from dailies and you can now even take a "tour guide" version of current content raids. Now, whether or not I agree with those sentiments is a discussion for another time, but it also wouldn't be accurate to say that they're completely false. No one will argue that raiding hasn't become more user-friendly in recent expansions. Vanilla's 40M raiding was designed for the hardcore and not only required almost a full-time job's worth of time commitments, but also was tuned around the player having an endless stack of consumables that needed to be farmed on off-nights. Quest items didn't always sparkle conveniently for you and the quests themselves required you to read the text and follow directions instead of finding the big blue spot on your world map. This chain, again, is a welcome (if temporary) return to that model. You're encouraged to use your head, connect dots and actually piece together clues in order to complete your objective. Someone that simply accepts the quest and fumbles his/her way through the quest is going to waste a lot of time.

The quest that sends you to Outland gives specific objectives ("find this item"), but a glance at the world map shows that the highlighted area which typically indicates where a quest can be completed now covers almost the entire zone. You can spend hours scouring the wastelands of Hellfire Peninsula looking for a small clickable quest item, or you can read the journal you're given, look for clues and fly straight to it. Likewise, an NPC in the Black Temple scenario gives you a very helpful hint regarding how to progress past a certain obstacle, but I still saw someone in General chat cussing and screaming about how obnoxious the mechanic was. It was clear that he'd rushed headlong into the room without paying attention to the NPC chatter. It's not so obvious as "Use this ability", but if you're paying attention and give it some thought, the answer is quite clear. I love it. I absolutely love it.


Concerns

Some time ago and at several points since then, I've suggested that Blizzard bring back class quests in a meaningful way. Rather than something you did while leveling, my suggestion was that they were something you did at max level, similar to the old Dreadsteed, Benediction and Hunter quests. They would be designed to push your limits with the class and force you to use every spell in your book. At the end, you would be rewarded with a class-specific title and maybe some transmog gear, something to show people that "Yes, I know what I'm doing" in a way that doesn't become "required" for progression or anything of that nature. By not being "required", they could be tuned to be incredibly difficult and something that the majority of alts and flavor-of-the-month players simply wouldn't be able to accomplish. The Black Harvest quest chain is exactly that. When this chain goes live, you will see very few Warlocks running around with green fire. Not only because the NPC you have to kill is fairly rare, but also because the last boss is punishingly difficult. While I love a challenge, this concerns me.

I would suggest that Blizzard's design team think long and hard about what they want to accomplish with this chain. If this is something they want to be held as bragging rights for people who've dedicated the time to learn their class inside out, then it's absolutely beautiful the way it is. The last boss is exceedingly hard, but not impossible. It requires time, effort and creative thinking, but a few people on the forums have reported completing it with an item level as low as 463, meaning that execution is more important than output. However, I already see people complaining very loudly in Blizzard's feedback thread that it's "too hard" or "impossible", even on intermediate stages of the quest chain that aren't too difficult. If this is intended to be something all Warlocks can have access to and most casual players should be able to fumble their way through, then it is, quite frankly, way too hard.

I would encourage Blizzard to stick to their guns on the tuning. Let it be hard. Hard is good and pushes people to be better. Seeing someone in Orgrimmar with their green Metamorphosis should make you say "Wow, that girl must be a freaking pro" rather than "Lucky bastard, he tagged that rare spawn and got that quest item". Just be prepared for a lot of very loud complaining when Joe Schmoe 20K DPS Warlock gets all excited about the quest chain and then gets smeared on the floor of the Black Temple repeatedly.

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