A last missive (for now, anyway) from WoW's front lines from our embedded correspondent. Catch up with Bickers' previous thoughts here.
Hello again! Before I wiffle on about Cataclysm’s level 80+ dungeons, I just want to touch on a bit more of the experience I had on the way to 85.
If you’re playing Cataclysm, you’ve probably worked your way through Uldum in southern Kalimdor by now, and if you haven’t, I implore you to do so.
With its ancient Egyptian architecture, enemies and sense of dusty history, it’s probably the most atmospheric zone in the game to date, and remains thematically consistent from the opening quests, right through to its local 5-man dungeons. It’s pure pleasure from a levelling perspective, with a plethora of off-the-wall quests and fun vehicle-based missions. There’s even a couple of RTS moments in there, one where you control a pack of lions, and another where you order ranged and melee units of the catlike Ramkahen people to defend a temple. And barrelling through ancient ruins in a giant fireball with the express intention of killing 1000 evil gnomes had me in stitches.
But by far the highlight is the enormous Harrison Jones quest-chain, which is Indiana Jones homage from start to finish. For the Alliance, Harrison is first encountered in the Stormwind Records Office as the besuited archaeology trainer, explaining to his students that majority of archaeology is done in the library. Ring any bells?
Hours later, and you’re running around cavernous burial chambers while he swings from statues with his whip and activates ancient mechanisms with a veiled purpose. His arch-enemy Shnottz, who speaks with a ‘comedy’ German accent and, it must be noted, looks a tiny bit like Hitler, dogs his every step. There’s even a scene where Harrison is fist-fighting with a bald, moustachioed, muscle-bound Shnottz soldier in front of the whirling propeller blades of an aircraft. I’ll leave the outcome of that one to your imagination. The hours-long quest chain had me hooked like a hungry trout right to its dramatic conclusion. Aside from the jolly times I’ve had with friends, it’s probably the most fun I’ve had in World of Warcraft, and it’s a neat conceptual dovetail with the new Archaeology profession.
Post level-80 dungeoneering begins in a quirky manner. Between 80 and 85, The Dungeon Finder tool is very specific about the dungeons it lets you enter, and as you gain levels, it closes off access to the lower 80+ dungeons. That’s a bit confusing at first, until you work out why it’s happening, or somebody tells you, as historically speaking, the game has never denied you access to content because you’re too high in level. This only applies to dungeons on normal difficulty rather than heroic, however, and the only reason for it I can fathom is that it means you’re not fatigued by those dungeons by the time you start running them on heroic difficulty.
Heroic runs are kept at arm’s length for a little while. The only way to unlock the higher difficulty setting for Cataclysm’s nine 80+ dungeons is to achieve an average gear-score of 329, and there are a couple of ways of doing this. Spending justice points earned through running instances on gear at the JP vendors, or simply looting gear from the dungeon-bosses on normal difficulty. What this really means is that your progress to the top-tier of gearing is throttled somewhat, and you’re kind of forced to run all those instances just to get to the next level of difficulty. I have absolutely no problem with this whatsoever, as it means I’ve been nudged into experiencing content I might not otherwise experience, as you have to run all the instances to get the required spread of suitably-rated gear across your entire outfit.
It’s also worth noting that critical-path quest-chains in 80+ zones also open up quests relating to the dungeons. These quests invariably result in drops that exceed item level 329. So if you really want to get into heroic instancing, you’ll find you’re rewarded by playing through the quest-content offered by the new zones. What’s more, most of this is compelling – and financially lucrative – enough to warrant doing even if you’re 85 and have no need of XP. Of course, you can ignore the zones you didn’t work through on your way to 85, and just grind normal-difficulty instances when you get there, but you’d be missing out on so much of what you’re actually paying for. Now I’m 85, I’m running instances, but I’m still working through the two zones I didn’t spend much time in between 80 and 85 – Mount Hyjal and Twilight Highlands – for the dungeon-specific quests they’ll spit out at the end.
The instances themselves have been a pleasant surprise, and a welcome injection of new bosses to tackle. Even on normal difficulty, it’s plain to see the challenge level has ramped up, and I’ve had some really tense runs where crowd-control and kiting have come back into 5-man vogue because they’re utterly necessary to success. Even the early trash-mobs in Uldum’s 7-boss Halls Of Origination need a tactical approach, because they’re big and chunky and travel in packs.
For me, part of the joy of a new expansion is learning boss patterns through trial and error. I don’t mind the odd wipe when the discussion of why it happened brings about a new tactical approach that works. It’s the sort of attitude you just can’t carry into large raids – for which you really need to have your shit wired – but for now, running Cataclysm’s normal-difficulty 80+ instances is a pleasure because every time I run one I’ve already run, I learn a little more method. There are a couple that I could run standing on my head now, and while I’m not some kind of method-nazi, I’m happy to impart tactics in a pre-boss huddle, and the whole group benefits.
I’m also just a couple of gear-score points off heroic runs, at which point I’m sure it’ll all change again. But for the moment, I’m content to run the Stonecore and knock heads with Slabhide, in the vain hope that he drops this little fellow… and I win the roll, for a change.