The RPG Scrollbars: Nine Years In Karazhan

Can a tower be a star? If you’ve been paying any attention to Blizzard’s wacky worlds recently, you’ll have spotted that it’s giving it a pretty good shot. Karazhan, home of Medivh, the Last Guardian of Tirisfal, whose corruption by the Burning Legion led to the orc invasions of Azeroth. A central location in the movie, as well as the mythos. A whole Hearthstone expansion dedicated to its wacky inhabitants.

This week, a new World of Warcraft patch called, yes, Return To Karazhan. But what is this place, for those who weren’t around the first time? What makes it so important?

Karazhan opened to the world in 2007 as part of the Burning Crusade expansion, while World of Warcraft was taking the world by storm. We’re talking crazy levels of attention. People talking about Azeroth as the world’s new golf club. People boasting how they got jobs off the back of leading guilds. Almost nobody saying how much better things used to be, because that’s how they more or less always had been.

Make no mistake, The Burning Crusade was a magical time. Looking back on it now, history hasn’t been kind. Its zones are largely plain and its questing at an awkward level between Old WoW and New WoW, having not gotten a spring-clean during Cataclysm. However, big features like the new, more story driven starting zones for Blood Elf and Draenai players, flying mounts, bombing run missions, and particularly cool locations like Silvermoon City and the endgame island of Quel’Danas (added later) meant that at the time, it felt like the Future. In making World of Warcraft, Blizzard had learned how to make World of Warcraft. Now it was ready to take the next step. Since then, love or hate expansions like Pandaria, they’ve never stopped making that step, with every expansion pack at least generally exceeding the previous one in terms of quality, give or take the occasional problem like Cataclysm spreading itself too thinly and Warriors of Draenor’s awkward lack of post-release content. But never mind that. For now.

Karazhan was the poster-child for this new era… at least for those who could get into it, which wasn’t that easy in an era with attunements but without raid finders, and designed for max level. I remember friendly people from guild I was in at the time actively doing tours of the place so that everyone could see it, but nevertheless, everyone had heard of it. Karazhan. The next generation of World of Warcraft dungeons/raids/whatever. It’s not that those that came before hadn’t offered moments of interest, such as stumbling upon the Grim Guzzler pub in Blackrock Depths, or the pirate ship at the end of Deadmines. For the most part though, World of Warcraft’s dungeons and raids had been a bit… eh… traditional. A big fire cave with a dragon in it. A lot of really big caves. An evil monastery… all very traditional stuff for the game that would later add the likes of the Oculus, the Caverns of Time, a dungeon set on a rolling train, and a piss-up in a brewery. It’s been a long time since Ragefire Chasm.

But this? This was Blizzard seeing what it could do if it stretched itself, and focused on the overall experience. Inevitably that meant a fair few gimmicks while fighting up from its stables to a ghostly party and beyond, but those gimmicks are some of the most memorable that World of Warcraft has ever offered. The Opera Event for instance provided one of three different shows in the form of battles, with the players caught in the middle of Little Red Riding Hood, The Wizard of Oz or Romeo and Juliet. Later, instead of yet another tank and spank against a boss, the party faces a game of chess using magical pieces, complete with host Medivh cheating his robe off by buffing his units. On top of that, more than almost any dungeon or raid before, and honestly more than most that would follow, Karazhan felt like raiding a real place rather than simply a gauntlet of bosses. As weird as many of its events were, its theme gave them a real coherency and consistency. Plus, it was huge. Over time that would come to annoy people, despite the number of optional bosses and scope for shortcuts. I remember a lot of grumbling from people who would rather have driven nails into their eyeballs than run Karazhan again. Blame the nature of MMOs. First time through, it was a magical place, and all the more so because it was very probably unlike anywhere else you’d ever explored in an MMO. Style. Substance. Most importantly, incredible ambition.

These days, it’s not quite as impressive. At the time it was Blizzard going all out with its scripting. Now, much like the rest of Burning Crusade’s additions, the bar has been raised so much higher. In addition, while at the time it took a well-prepared team of 10 to face its threats, any player has been able to solo it since 2009. At Level 110, nothing in it can even scratch you. The most basic AOE or damaging aura has literally everything in it just collapsing at your feet. This somewhat inevitably takes away a lot of the appeal. It’s still available for players to explore though, and still a cool location that Blizzard has already gotten a fair amount of use out of during the Legion expansion for introductory and artifact weapon quests. As I said in my review a while ago, I was really happy with that. The game has an annoying tendency to keep pushing forward into new territory and not make enough use out of what’s already there, and a huge spooky castle once owned by the Guardian of the realm seems like the kind of place that warrants more than being put on farm status and then never visited again. Even before the patch, players have ‘known’ that there was more to Karazhan than met the eye though, including rumours of an upside down version of the place leading to Medivh’s secret lodgings, and a gate tantalisingly leading… to nothing.

Now, I haven’t played the new Karazhan content. It launches this week, on the 25/26th of October, and I’m not a time-traveller. It is on the PTR at the moment, but don’t think you can just drop in. While original Karazhan was a raid and this one is a 5-man dungeon, it’s designed to be at around the current Mythic dungeon difficulty. There’s also an attunement quest to prevent you from just walking through the door. However, the internet being the internet, it’s already possible to watch people play through.

I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that this isn’t one of those cases where Blizzard has just gone back in and tweaked the bosses a bit. A lot of familiar faces do show up, and the beginning of the dungeon is very similar. As it goes on though, it becomes clear that once again Karazhan is being used as a bridge between different eras of World of Warcraft. The first version was largely to show the jump from original to The Burning Crusade. This one connects The Burning Crusade, not-entirely-coincidentally the last expansion with a heavy Burning Legion component, with the Warcraft of today.

It’s designed to show the evolution of Blizzard’s design and capabilities with their engine, as well as on a deeper level, the jump from the traditional fantasy that it largely was at launch, give or take a few gnome/dwarf inventions, to the fusion of fantasy and SF that it is today. The final boss in particular is similar to reaching the end of Lord of the Rings and having Sauron show up in a mech suit. That was then. This is now. Karazhan sits on Azeroth’s lay-lines, but more importantly, stands as a demonstration of what Blizzard can do and what it wants to be next. It’s not just a spooky mage’s tower. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, and how much more there is to go before World of Warcraft’s legend finally comes to an end. If the final farewell speeches are at Medivh’s last party, I can’t think of many more fitting ways for it to go out.

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6 Comments

  1. Asurmen says:

    I miss the BC expansion, when the game was last ‘difficult’ until the invention of Mythics. I miss the feeling of struggling for that reward in any dungeon. Just getting attuned to Kara with randoms was hard. I miss having to mark mobs, and CC them, and having to care about AOE and threat and positioning.

    And then I think about the fact that I’m in the minority, and I feel selfish/guiltly for wanting that difficulty back, and the expense of others :(

    • Michael Anson says:

      As a BC raider myself, I can sympathize. It’s a delicate balance to strike, providing difficult content while also not gating the content for only a minority of players, and one that every MMO has to struggle with. I believe that there’s nothing wrong with presenting difficult content alongside more mainline content, and Blizzard apparently agrees, experimenting with ways to make content both accessible and potentially difficult.

      I see the primary issue here being one of information. Namely, that difficult content from previous expansions were presented as “hard modes,” but contained information that people already knew from easier modes. The new Karazahn dungeon can be seen as a test, then, of providing harder content that is not previewed, and the reception of the hard content by the mass of players will probably inform Blizzard’s choices going forward.

      However, I don’t feel that difficult and easy content must necessarily be mutually exclusive to be fun. We now technically have four ranks of dungeons (normal, heroic, mythic, and mythic+), and there’s no real reason why dungeons can’t be only available to a few of the tiers. This could even work well from a storytelling perspective. Say you have a normal or heroic dungeon that anyone can play, with a certain story and set of mechanics. Then, you skip mythic for mythic+, advance the story a bit, and remix the bosses to provide fresh new challenges. This would both serve the needs of those looking for a challenge and those looking to just experience the content.

      • malkav11 says:

        If you’re providing separate content for the hardest difficulty then you are absolutely not serving those who just want to experience the content.

        They’ve done a pretty good job in recent expansions of stratifying things such that there are challenging versions of the instances for people who want that (and indeed achievements for making things even harder on yourself), but anyone can get through a basic version. I feel like they’re starting to backslide a bit by having these mythic-only dungeons and having quests that only work in normal-and-up raids and I’m not wild about it. I’m less bothered by the dungeons – I think it’s still not great, because there are people who will have a really hard time getting into functional groups for them and it’s annoying to have to physically go to the instance entrance, something that’s not been necessary for dungeons since Wrath. But I have a huge, if casual, guild and with only one-day lockouts (if any, I couldn’t tell) and only needing to source one tank and one healer, mythic dungeons are reasonably accessible to me. Raids, on the other hand, are a complete no-go. People that are interested in raiding and capable of completing them have a raid group already and are running it on a scheduled basis, and lockouts mean they can’t pitch in to help more casual folks. And even if I could get into one (which historically has not been possible – they’ve tended to be full long before I was eligible), I don’t want to make that kind of commitment to something I only enjoy doing a couple of times. And PUG raids were a catastrophe every time. Raid Finder has been a godsend in terms of actually getting to do that content, even if it’s a hollow imitation of the real thing.

  2. Ghostwise says:

    Wait, there was a Warcraft movie ? Uh.

  3. Blastaz says:

    Interesting that Legion has made WoW relevant enough again to get a news article for what is a relatively minor patch.

    It certainly has been a very good xpac for me!

    • malkav11 says:

      Relatively minor? It’s a major content patch. A full point release, of which there are usually only like four or five for an entire expansion, introducing multiple new instances, entire questlines, and more.

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