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Returning To World Of Warcraft With Patch 6.2

Ships, time travelling and myths.

I've been playing WoW on and off for most of my adult life and quite a bit more besides. It is my comfort game, a warm blanket of mob-killing, number-crunching and loot-grabbing that has always been there when I've needed it. Latest expansion Warlords of Draenor [official site] was, on release, the best the game has ever been in terms of quality, though rather quickly ran out of interesting things to do once max level was reached. I burnt out early this year but 6.2 and its laundry list of changes and additions piqued my interest and pulled me back in. Here's how it played out.

It's never the big stuff that makes me smile when I come back to WoW. Large raids and new zones have been spoiled, datamined and usually fully uploaded to YouTube long before they hit the live servers. Even if you avoid community sites or other coverage, Blizzard themselves give quite a lot of detail in their official announcements and patch notes, so they're unlikely to be surprising. They are what's used to sell me on another month of subscription, after all. The pleasure, and indeed the devil, is in the details - not having to scroll all the way down the EULA to hit accept when I first log in. That sort of thing.

In Tanaan Jungle, the new zone introduced for max level players, sits Parvink. She's my favourite part of the patch, a gnome who I recognise from a brief but happily remembered stint with the WoWTCG. The whole expansion offers similarly miniature doses of nostalgia, scatter-gunned so that at least some of it should resonate no matter how deep your history with the series goes. Parvink provides a daily quest that varies in specifics but sticks to the theme of killing bad guys while you trek through the zone on more interesting endeavours.

In that, she and Tanaan are Warlords of Draenor amplified. It's packed with places to explore and mini-events to complete. In turn those are filled with hidden items and rare spawns to collect and kill. The rewards for this are of a high power level to help newer players (or those with a little less time in the day) catch up to the current tiers of content. This is similar to how the initial level 100 areas played out when the expansion released, but much condensed. It's difficult to charge around the various battlefields for more than five minutes without running into a powerful enemy or chest. Equally, there's just as many super-rare mount-dropping mini-bosses in Tanaan as there are scattered across the entire rest of Draenor and it has its own 40 man raid boss.

This density is great, filling each adventure into the area with variety and challenge. But it also highlights the lack of longevity that caused three million players to leave the game between December and March. In our first evening in Tanaan myself and the friend you see posing in the header romped through the areas, picking up the vast majority of hidden treasures. Obviously, that's a choice being made by us to have a hardcore playstyle and it was a lot of fun, but it only took us a few hours of wandering to see most of what the zone had to offer and figure out its tricks. Stand in these pools for a damage buff, kill these to make that spawn, go into this cave to find those types of enemies for that quest. Now it's just a matter of logging on every day to power through a few dailies, while once a week quests of actual consequence will unlock as part of a story-based campaign.

It's a feedback loop that pushes the correct brain buttons but one that's not compelling enough to keep me coming back to get to that weekly stuff I actually like or, indeed, to stay subscribed in the first place. The garrison, a player-controlled section of the world where you build and manage your own outpost, was similar: fun to develop and one of the best additions to the game while you're levelling, giving you a home base to return to and a way to develop your character while offline. But once you're at max the majority of its rewards boil down to small additions to resources you already have massive amounts of or irrelevant pieces of gear quickly outpaced by other, quicker options.

Another addition, the shipyard, is an attempt to fix this. Providing you with naval forces to send on missions rather than the garrison's followers, you have more control over the distribution of your ships, having to build and customise each. There are less missions on offer but they take longer and follow a form of narrative, breaking blockades letting you run operations in other parts of the sea, while you unlock new ways to counter enemy ships by exploring Tanaan. It's the focal point of the patch. Possibly it will succumb to the same pitfalls as the garrison over time, but the philosophy of significant missions that follow an arc of sorts and more interesting rewards is definitely the correct choice.

What I was most excited for going in was the introduction of mythic dungeons, harder versions of the five player instances already in the game. Unfortunately the squad of friends I'd ran with in the early days of WoD have since moved on due to time, money or interest issues so I haven't managed to plunge into them in the way I would have liked. Mythics aren't listed in the automatic dungeon finder, meaning you have to use the manual premade group tool. This may seem like a trivial complaint, but it's the difference between a guaranteed balanced group that has at least reached some stats-based minimums versus a player-ran crapshoot that doesn't automatically teleport to dungeons or have easy access to replacements if there are quitters.

Which might be understandable if mythics were more complicated in their difficulty. The difference between normal/heroic raids and the mythic versions is more than a simple numbers upgrade. Bosses will receive new abilities, timings will change, entire phases of fights are introduced - the quality varies, of course, but it's a great design decision to make playing at the highest level both harder and unique. Dungeons have none of that. The fights are identical, only with health and damage of enemies ramped up. This does make them different to play, as elements that could be ignored or dealt with sloppily before are now far more deadly, but it's not reaching its potential.

On a similar axis are the 'new' timewalking dungeons, which scale your character's level and items down to be on an even playing field with earlier expansion's five-mans. As someone who never got far into The Burning Crusade, I was looking forward to being able to play it as it was, or close to. At least, that's the theory. In reality they're laughably easy, simple to complete even with only four people, as we discovered when a bug stopped anyone replacing a player that left mid-way. The loot that drops there means that grinding them out is the best option for making your way towards mythic dungeons in personal late-game progression. This easy loot combination wouldn't be an issue - much of this patch is designed around letting players catch up in item level, as discussed - if they weren't quite so stunningly dull.

No matter what a few nostalgia blinded old-timers may tell you, Blizzard's skill when it comes to creating interesting encounters has risen considerably since the 'good' old days. Bosses are more than tank and spank with a single add, or one mechanic that requires some positioning. Packs come in more than simple caster/non-caster combos and actually vary throughout the dungeon, usually telling a more coherent story of where you are and why. While I approve of timewalking and the 10th anniversary return of Molten Core as Blizzard's way of showing just how much better things are now, tying it to decent gear that has to be repeatedly ran for with no guaranteed incentives - meaning you can easily come out of those boring 20+ minutes with nothing - is a mistake.

bonus tell-me-how-bad-my-UI-is shot

This may all seem very negative, but I am enjoying being back with the game. It's still the best MMO in the world from almost every angle and the pure amount of stuff in the patch is impressive. Plus they're all good ideas, just flawed in implementation in ways that will be fixed over the coming months and years, patches and expansions. It's all tied together by an adventure guide which tells players what all their options are in terms of progression, and though it needs more work in terms of theme, it's an excellent way to pull together all the information that is usually found on community sites. Like many other features, with more time and work it will eventually be a vital part of the game I can't imagine playing without.

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