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.