To be fair, it’s not really supposed to be one. I’m talking about the 4.0.1 patch and how it’s taking us over the course of two months from the world of WotLK mechanics to the new realm of Cataclysm mechanics. It’s not really meant to be a method of teaching us how exactly we’ll play in the future, as doing that would kind of obsolete the Cataclysm content itself. We’re supposed to play with the new mechanics to get a general understanding and (let’s be realistic here) to generate tons of data for Blizzard to utilise in their ultimate debugging, balancing and streamlining. So what am I complaining about? Importantly, for the most part I’m not complaining at all. I’m having fun and I’m quite liking playing around with new toys on a familiar ground. There is, however, one factor that makes me anxious about how we’ll manage the emotional transition into the post-Cataclysm game experience.
One of the aspects prominently discussed is that, compared to WotLK, Cataclysm is going to turn the difficulty up a notch, both for the questing and the dungeon game. I’m not going to call WotLK (raid) content easy, and that’s a discussion for a wholly other time (which may never come) anyway, but for the sake of an illustration let’s call WotLK “easy” and Cataclysm “hard”. Even without a conscious design direction, the inevitable point of a vertical expansion is to take the “very powerful” characters from the previous stage and turn them into “kinda rather weak” characters in the next stage, so the cycle of power gain can be repeated. A good preparation for the venture from “easy” to “hard” would be “a bit harder”, right? Well, instead of making the game “a bit harder”, instead of requiring a little bit of crowd control, a little bit of AoE conscience, a little bit of mana awareness … instead, 4.0.1 basically punched out the bottom of the easy-barrel. And the problem I fear is not just the fact that this is the case, but how.
Like probably everyone else who went into ICC post patch we found ourselves rampaging through it like a divine force of destruction. On Monday we cleared through to Sindragosa, only two healers throughout. We’ve long been doing Sindy with only one tank (me in my frost resist gear and looking for opportunities to Charge behind an ice block while she’s casting Blistering Cold), this was the first time we also tried it with only two healers. And we actually failed – because one healer was unluckily killed rather early, then we got as far as 12%, at which point we wiped, mostly because some silly raid leader (that’s me) forgot to actually explicitly assign people to ice tomb duty, so our sole remaining healer was iced, we realised too late that no one’s freeing her and .. uhm .. we died. Then it was late and we called it. Tuesday we came back with 3 healers for Arthas, but again attempted Sindy with two. That’s seven damage dealers, for those counting at home. Or, in other words, a single air phase and the pathetic dragon dead with only 12 stacks of Mystic Buffet on me and everyone in the raid alive and prosper.
So, we went to see Arthas. At which point the story is supposed to take a cautionary bend of “spoiled by previous success, we made mistakes”. And we did. Thrown off rhythm (expected) and slightly imprecise in the communication, we transitioned into the first transition (haha) with the second Shambling Horror freshly spawned. No big deal. During phase 2 our elemental shaman got carried off the edge, again, miscommunication, miscoordination. During phase 3 I fumbled my cooldowns (again, with slight miscommunication on top) and got myself killed. Then I got battle ressed … and sucked into Frostmourne, which was not negative at all, and I’m only mentioning it because I always wanted that to happen some time. And then Arthas was down so unusually swiftly that some of us exclaimed on Vent in frustration over having suddenly died .. before realising that this one was the “good death”. Someone remarked that it took us much longer to actually get everyone inside the dungeon while fighting through dead-freezing game clients and being thrown into different instances of ICC for no reason whatsoever, clearing Sindragosa’s Gauntlet twice in the process (in addition to the time we cleared it on Monday already), than it took us to actually fight and kill Sindy and Arthas. And while I am certain that those of us who got their first Kingslayer on Tuesday would have been absolutely able to do it before the patch as well, I’m still glad we, as a guild, did get the Lich King down before the patch (twice even), because this one felt inevitably cheap.
The problem, again, is not just that things are easier now, it’s the means by which they are easier. Which is: a significant DPS boost across the board. We’re blowing things up like nobody’s business. And I don’t mean “we, the awesome members of our guild”, but rather “we, the players of the game”. We’re doing the exact thing we’re supposed to learn to stop doing. To once again be fair to both us and the state of the game, there’s little choice. Mechanics and content feel so awkwardly mismatched, that there are really only two likely alternatives: either everything is (way) too hard, or everything is (way) too easy. And to be entirely honest, if that’s the choice, I’m not exactly unhappy that we didn’t end up in the first alternative. While pushover-ICC does feel a bit awkward, you can still just run it to have fun, not worrying too much about composition etc. On the other hand, a hypothetical super-hard-ICC would just make everyone wonder why, at this point in time, we should even bother. So it’s not bad. But still…
In WotLK damage income is nearly binary – dead or alive, with little time in between; conversely healers are supposed to heal all the time regardless. In Cataclysm we’re supposed to be taking damage stretched over time, and receive healing stretched over time. Healers are supposed to be given time to triage and prioritise, as they’ll be given tools to deal with large and slowly depleting health pools. Of course, right now we’re still living in the old damage model – with the exception of Chill of the Throne in ICC and the overall reduction of armour (for tanks), which means less total but even spikier damage. And while healers are now mechanically designed to be dealing with larger health pools, those larger health pools are not in yet (yes, we do have more health already, especially non-tanks, but that’s nothing compared to the health levels we’ll consider typical in even low level Cataclysm dungeon gear). To compensate, mana is even more infinite than ever. Getting used to the new healing model? No way.
In Cataclysm we are supposed to rely more on (crowd) control and less on AoE tanking and damage. The latter two have been appropriately weakened to achieve the goal, and, just to be clear, I’m a huge fan. So, you walk into ICC and ask everyone to remember the changed paradigm and to be careful with AoE attacks. Then you stroll up to the Crimson Hall trash, assign crowd control … and the Darkfallen Commander dispels the Shackle off himself and comes running for the priestess. Right. Taking out Tactician and Lieutenant then. Then, Frostwing trash, you stand there, mark everything up for a pull where 3 out of 5 targets will be crowd controlled, count down and ….. immune, immune, immune. This content, you see, was not designed for an age in which we’d be supposed to care. And this might be a problem if our healers could not keep us up regardless while our damage dealers blow things up at an impressive rate. Getting used to new tactical patterns? No way.
So, that’s the thing. All those little awkward mismatches between mechanics and content are currently being smoothed over by overwhelmingly high throughput. Especially damage output. Which kind of means that the flaws of WotLK raiding the Cataclysm changes are going to counteract are in the meantime being one last time exaggerated beyond their highest heights. To exaggerate myself, before going from kings to mere knights (hey, it’s still a game, which means player characters, by and large, are still going to be walking pieces of awesome) we’re being turned into gods for a couple of months. I am slightly worried about how we’re going to take that transition mentally, emotionally.