Mists of Pandaria is definitely better than Cataclysm, I don’t think anyone can disagree with that. The leveling experience from 85 to new maximum level, 90, was superb. The first zone The Jade Forest was gorgeous, the story telling was good and well paced. More importantly the zone had replay-ability in spades. Personally I leveled seven characters through it. I presumed at some point I’d need my alt stable for having fun and downtime in MoP and The Jade Forest was an almost perfect leveling experience.
After The Jade Forest, The Valley of Four Winds picked up the baton and ran with us into Krasarang Wilds and Kun Lai Summit. As the story drew us along the road with Chen Stormstout we discovered Halfhill and the new game feature: Sunsong Ranch. The new farm allowed us to plant and grow crops and became a hub for daily quest to expand the farm and advance our Cooking skills. The revamped Cooking leveling experience was well thought out and invigorated Fishing as well. The process of taking cooking through to 525 from 450 (level 85 max level) was so engaging that I leveled cooking to maximum level on six characters and the whole experience was more fun and satisfying than main profession advancement or even the leveling process itself.
For me the pleasure of leveling dried up somewhat as I reached The Dread Wastes and the Klaxxi questing hub. The zone was gloomy, another Duskwallow, Shadowmoon Valley, Zul’Farrak of a zone. The biggest downside was how tightly the mantid mobs were packed creating a constant feeling of anxiety that the next pull would go awry and you’d pull the entire zone. It was a blessing to reach level 90, but the leveling process was tainted with a memory of how onerous it was wading through the last mob packed zone and level.
The result is a vastly improved leveling experience, but one that seems to gradually run out of steam as the experience required to progress gets exponential greater. The final zone in any expansion should have challenging and engaging content and have as much love lavished upon it as the first. If this isn’t done, and it doesn’t appear to have been, you end up with a new leveling area that people are keen to start but demotivated from finishing. I have only succeeded in leveling two chars all the way through to 90, at around 87 – 88 I lose the will to take them further and there are several reasons for this.
One of the biggest failings of this expansion is how unfriendly it is to alts. In previous expansions (including Cataclysm) I have enjoyed re-running the content with my full stable of alts. I’m not alone, many people enjoy having more than one or two characters at level 90. I’ve wanted to expand my stable to include an off tank and a raid healer but quite frankly getting my warlock raid ready and keeping her competitive has been nightmarish (especially after the 5.2 nerfs).
All my alts completed the quest chain in Jade Forest that takes you to exalted with the Forest Hozen, particularly for the extra flight paths. Then my interest in questing drops off and this is the point in previous expansions where my alts would level in 5 mans. In Mists you can do two 5 mans: Temple of the Jade Serpent and the three boss Stormstout Brewery. These two dungeons get very old, very quickly as you can’t do any others until you’re level 87. At level 87 two more dungeons open up: Mogu’shan Palace and the challenging Shado-pan Monastery. I’d go on but that’s your lot until you’re level 90 when five more dungeons are added (three are retooled: Scholomance, Scarlet Halls and Monastery). Strictly speaking there are four heroic dungeons and Jade Temple, Stormstout, Shado-pan Monastery and Mogu’shan Palace now offer up ilvl 453 gear, but the other 5 “heroics” have no “normal” level equivalent.
If you get your alts to level 90 you then have the mind numbing rep grind to drag yourself through. It’s true Blizzard made this easier with the introduction of the 100% rep increase token, which mains unlock by reaching exalted, but even half the rep grind seems way too much for me. Really. It’s also true that you don’t need to do any of the rep grinds, they aren’t compulsory, however this is slightly disingenuous as the Golden Lotus grind to honoured is required to unlock the first tier of gear available, as you’ll really struggle to get into LFR without it. Exalted with the August Celestials is still valuable mid expansion for those quality crafting recipes. Fortunately the new key reputation, Shado-pan Assault, isn’t linked to Shado-pan reputation and, Ashen Verdict-like, can only be increased in the Throne of Thunder raid. In Wrath of the Lich King, rep grinders entered Ice Crown Citadel multiple times per day, killed trash to the first boss, left the instance and re-set the encounter and began again. I’m happy to report that at least that is no longer possible.
In place of 5 man content Blizzard have given us LFR, World Bosses and Scenarios. LFR is intended to provide a pathway from level 90 blue gear to current content raids. For small bite-sized content Scenarios are the solution. To completely remove queue times when forming random Scenario groups they are three man with no role requirement. Scenarios can be completed with three pure DPS classes, there is no requirement for tanking or healing. Many key storytelling moments are delivered in a slightly more interactive form in Mists through the Scenario format, an improvement on the cut-scene fest that was Uldum at least. World Bosses…hit ‘em until they drop loot…what does that sound like?
LFR is gated by ilvl so the first T14 raid, Mogu’shan Vaults requires a item level of 463 to enter. The next level of T14 raids Heart of Fear is gated at ilvl 470 and for T15 ilvl 480 is required. The tyranny of ilvl, gating levels of content, creates break points that it can often be difficult and frustrating to hit. You’ll first find yourself mercilessly farming 5 mans for one or two bits of 453 ilvl gear that will be a minor, short lived, upgrade but will take you up one or two ilvls and get you across the arbitrary threshold into LFR. You’ll be running Mogu’shan Vaults every week (unless you have several Elder Charms of Good Fortune to ‘extra roll’ with) trying to break through the 470 threshold to progress into Heart of Fear, so you can repeat your bleak frustration with ilvl 479 at the gate to T15 LFR content. In your frustration you turn to grinding rep for faction gear and running multiple repetitious dailies every day to reach a high enough reputation to be able to spend some of your valour points. The end of this cycle is normally a not particularly good “sidegrade” in LFR that keeping in your bag rather than equipping (or disenchanting) takes you over the ilvl requirement. It’s also leads to the phenomenon of “loot lending” – the loaning of higher ilvl BoE gear (to keep in bag not equip) to overcome the ilvl gate of LFR.
This process simply forces people to run content ad nauseum in pursuit of an upgrade to one piece of gear, while grinding on reputation to high frustration levels as a fall back if the LFR drop doesn’t come and immediately disregarding that reputation and the daily quest grind if the random drop comes. Not many people are still grinding T14 reputation that isn’t exalted, there is no real benefit and no one did those dailies for the joy of it. The same applies to 5 man content. As soon as a char get’s into LFR content no one is running 5 mans. This is because there is no compelling motivation to. The purpose of the 5 man is now to deliver gear to raise your ilvl enough to enter LFR. There is no challenge in 5 mans, indeed as time passes 5 mans become less and relevant. The degree to which they are over-geared increases and the value of the gear decreases significantly, there is no need to run them for reputation or valour as capping valour is a trivial matter. There are no heroic 5 mans (only 5 mans that become available at 90) and they present no challenge and no purpose after ilvl 463 whatsoever.
The lack of 5 man content is addressed, as far as Blizzard are concerned, by LFR and Scenarios. Scenarios are even being beefed up and will offer epic gear in 5.3, however they are still dumbed down, challenge free content for casuals. This is the crux of Blizzard’s failure. I’ve been a long time supporter of Blizzard extending the accessibility of their content. 1% of the player base accessed the Naxxramas 40 man raid content and clearly that’s a failure and waste of development time. At all points in the expansion players should have the ability to join the game, or step up and play more “seriously”, and be able to deliver a raid ready character to access that content. Blizzard have previously done a good job of that, introducing token gear and non raid routes to gear up for raids. However the current gear path is severely flawed. Blizzard have removed 5 mans which I’ve always seen as the spine of World of Warcraft and although they’ve given us other content: dailies, LFR and Scenarios, it isn’t quality content. Dailies and LFR are just chores to grind or ignore (as best you can) for gear to ease the early stages of progression raiding for the bulk of raiders (those of us that are not hardcore or involved in the world first races).
Some people complain ridiculously that there is no content for raiders outside of raids. Other people respond that their is too much compulsory content with daily rep grinds on the Isle of Thunder and weekly LFR grind through two tiers of content. They’re both wrong. There is plenty of content outside of raids for raiders to engage with, none of it is compulsory all of it is skippable. The real problem is that there is no quality content outside of raids. The Daily Quest Grind is too much, so much so that I can motivate myself to do any of it. LFR is, if anything, worse than it was in Dragon Soul when it was introduced. The over-tuning of several of the T15 fights in LFR has made it a wipefest, and while that’s acceptable, even desirable, in real raids, in LFR a wipe is simply a cue for people to leave, blamestorm and abuse each other. This reduces the pleasure of an unpleasant chore even further. Making more and better gear available from Scenarios will get more people doing them until all the gear is farmed then they’ll be ignored again. The Scenario is still never going to be a repeatable content style, forcing people to repeat them for gear is not going to make them more popular, it will make them more universally hated.
Blizzard has once again extended accessibility and provided a whole raft of content to that end. Inevitably they have made some content easier and more straightforward which will inevitably provoke accusations of dumbing down the game, with some justification. 5 mans are gone until the opening tier of the next expansion, or maybe better gear dropping 3 man content will replace them altogether, Scenarios and LFR have stepped into the gear breach to give a leg up for gamers looking to step up to raiding . The problem with Mists of Pandaria is that while introducing a new progression model and phasing out old content forms they have done some dumbing down and reduced the pleasure of many gamers who have stuck with Warcraft thus far. More people can raid, but raiding is no longer the achievement it once was. More people can raid but the motivation and allure of raiding is being slowly drained because of it.
The problem is not the lack of content for raiders and casual players, it is the lack of quality, challenging content. If Blizzard continue in this vein this could be the first sign of (long predicted, long confounded) death of World of Warcraft.