WoW Wednesday: The Eternal Grind

It is a very rare occasion to have one singular quest in World of Warcraft ever piss me off. Not agitate me, per se, but fill me with such an intense blinding rage and confusion as to make me question its very existence. That isn’t to say that such quests aren’t, at times, warranted. Infamous ones such as Wrathion’s Valor Gating for the Mists of Pandaria legendary cloak have been used in the past to regulate the acceleration for top-end players. Others, like infamous Vanilla ‘Alliance Tower Escort’ were terrible not due to their design but the implications of performing it in such a massive world with interfering elements and players. None of them, however, quite stack up like ‘The Eternal Traveler.’

The Eternal Traveler is an oddly unique quest which put a bad taste in my mouth before it began. For those of you not in the know, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has, like its predecessors, a Digital Collector’s edition for pre-order. For the new expansion, however, Blizzard-Activision has their editions broken down into multiple fields. The base copy, as always, comes with the expansion and early-access to Death Knights for all races much like Battle for Azeroth unlocked Allied Races in Patch 7.3. Then there are TWO different Collector’s Editions.

The Heroic Edition includes some of the standard fair. While it includes a Level 120 Character Boost to use instantly, it also includes the Ensorcelled Everwyrm Mount (unique to the Collector’s Editions) as well as a brand-new Cosmetic Transmog Set. The Epic Edition, which is an additional $20 USD, includes a cosmetic Weapon Enchant, a Pet (which usually comes with the regular Collector’s Edition), and a new Hearthstone toy in line with other Holiday Toys.


Those who follow my previous work know I have little issues with pre-orders or Collector’s Editions, but I do have an issue with multiple versions. The practice, made famous by Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs series, has resulted in multiple companies creating multiple types of ‘Collector’s’ products with varying objects between them. While, thankfully, Shadowlands’ editions at their apex contain everything you might be looking for if you’re purchasing at previous expansion’s full price, it still sets a very worrying standard.

With that in mind, you collect your initial rewards from either edition. Unpacking the Enscorcelled Everwyrm for a test-ride you’ll be able to click on an interactable object just behind the saddle. This will summon the newest object of your frustrations, Xolaritos, which begins the promised questline for your transmog appearance. Belonging to the Eternal Travelers, they have moved between the veil of worlds for untold millennia. Calling Oribos their home in the Shadowlands, they’ve now come to Azeroth in sensing the rising presence of Death. You can strike a bargain with them, for the right price.

Xolaritos wants Echoes of Mortality. When the living die, they leave behind fragments of their life force behind. The strongest of Azeroth’s denizens leave behind resonant pieces; portions that tremble with the life they used to have. Collect 40 of these and not only will you become an ally of the Eternal Travelers, but you’ll receive their unique transmog appearance. All of the textures and animations are unique (so far) and haven’t been seen in-game. The set, overall, is REALLY cool and looks fantastic.


This, at the outset, is an excellent opportunity and idea. Even in just giving you those bare details, it sounds like an EXCELLENT start to an intriguing quest; perhaps a lead-in to the ideas about what the growing influence of death means. While there is the trepidation of perhaps locking ‘content’ behind an exclusive paywall, you can do quite a lot with just a little. Recent goers of the War Campaign’s finale can find such a concept littered with Lor’themar Theron. After witnessing Sylvanas Windrunner utterly destroy Saurfang in their Mak’gora, he among several characters remarked about her using magic they had never seen before. That is VERY interesting and opens up quite a bit of possibility for exploring that in Shadowlands.

The Eternal Traveler decides to forgo that by instead creating the most obfuscating and infuriating questline ever.

In reality, killing any creature in your level bracket will feasibly drop Echoes of Mortality. Within your first few kills per day you will earn anywhere between 4 to 6 Echoes. Initially starting the quest you’ll get the impression that you can quickly complete the quest for your transmog. This is not to be.

After your initial gain the drop chances reduce to a pitiful number. The highest numbers reported by WoWhead, that do not come from raid enemies or PvP-tagged targets, are a little over 1%. Most are far below that threshold, dwindling into a 0.5% range, making individual drops as difficult to obtain as Invincible’s Reins from Icecrown Citadel. This resets after the daily lockouts clock over for your server, meaning that at 8am server time, you’ll once more be able to gain 4-6 Echoes from one mob.


This is content gating at its finest. Those purchasing any collector’s edition are now essentially paying for one quest which requires hours upon hours of grinding for a cosmetic appearance with no additional lore or incumbent excitement.

This results in this very real scenario: in an effort to quickly grind through this incredibly arduous and needlessly time-gated quest, players are using the group finder. There, they are gathered together to kill as many densely packed mobs as humanly possible in the shortest amount of time to maximize their chances at getting even one Echo to drop. The two well known hotspots are the Blood Gate in Zuldazar, and the Dabrie Farmstead in Arathi Highlands. I once spent a little over 2 hours grinding through over 400 mobs for a measly 5 Echoes.

The reality is that this is all based off of luck. If you’re willing to put in the time, and you’re incredibly lucky, you’ll be able to soar through the needed Echoes with little difficulty. However, a grind that players are essentially buying into should not be faced with the same amount of time-sinking that Insane in the Membrane or Rated PvP requires. It is, by and large, no less than a slap in the face to adopters of the new Collector’s Editions. Forced arbitrary grinding for the impatient, and a needless time gating for those willing to wait. Add that to your collection tab.

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Shadowlands – World of Warcraft’s Next Expansion

Blizzcon 2019 has finally come and gone to uproars of applause. After the tepid convention that was last year’s Blizzard-Activision trade show with the heavily controversial release and management if Diablo Immortal, the company desperately needed to make this convention a landmark release experience. As you’ll see throughout all our coverage this week, they certainly nailed it out of the park. For many, first and foremost it began with World of Warcraft’s newest expansion: Shadowlands.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands is the recently announced 8th expansion to the 15 year old MMORPG. Taking place right on the heels of Battle for Azeroth, disgraced warchief Sylvanas Windrunner pursues her quest to command death itself. Advancing on Icecrown Citadel, the seat of the undead Lich King, she endeavors to take his crown by force or otherwise. Laying waste to his forces and even chaining the Jailer of the Damned, she took up the unholy crown, the Helm of Domination, for her own.

Declaring that the world itself was a prison she took the Helm, the key to keeping the endless undead Scourge from destroying Azeroth, and tore it in half. In doing so, Sylvanas ripped the Eternal Veil asunder; the barrier between the world of the living and those of the dead. Throwing the Shadowlands, Warcraft’s afterlife, into chaos, she escaped to the dark recesses of its eternal prison. Uniting with her partner in the Maw, the mysterious Jailer has begun to draw souls and Anima, the essence of life, in earnest from the Shadowlands. If he is allowed to continue uninhibited, and the Shadowlands are left unclosed, all of Azeroth if not the universe will be fed to the Jailer’s unending hunger.


Heroes of Azeroth will be venturing through the inescapable Maw, a prison for the worst souls in existence, into the Shadowlands themselves. While there players will be exploring four new zones and the Covenants who rule over them. The Kyrians rule over Bastion, one of the first zones players will encounter. Angelic beings who revel in truth, duty and accept only the most virtuous souls, they assist the mysterious Arbiter in ferrying souls to the afterlife and sorting them after their judgement. With the drain upon the Shadowlands, those attempting to gain their wings through their trials have suddenly been unable to progress. With numbers of Kyrians dwindling, the Shadowlands are becoming more and more deprived of souls.

The Ardenweald is a place of nature and rebirth; a dark mirror to the Emerald Dream. Here, those souls connected innately to nature come to rest and find peace before being reborn into the cycle. Ruled over by the Winter Queen and her Night Fae, this place of nature is being hit the hardest of all. With both souls and their inherit living energy, Anima, being drained into the Maw, the Ardenweald is withering day by day. Soon the Winter Queen will need to decide how she rations the precious resource of the dead, and who may rest in the cold forever.

 

“Bastion, the realm of the Kyrians. They accept only the most virtuous souls into their ranks.”

Maldraxxus is the dark domain of the Necrolords, masters of the Shadowlands’ standing army. Here in their soul forges do they forge their forces into engines of destruction. It is not cruelty or evil that rules this land, but strength and power. Used in part to defend the Frozen Throne and the gateway to the realm of the dead, now this army has fallen into dissaray and chaos. While its soldiers stand ready to defend the souls of millions, its leader has mysteriously vanished. Now the five most notable Necrolords are vying for the position, and the responsibility for bringing death across the cosmos. In an effort to combat the other, each is building an army that will soon outgrow the normal standing forces of Maldraxxus. Soon, all out war will be unleashed…

Revendreath is the purgatorial realm of the Shadowlands and the domain of the Venthyr. At the dawn of creation they were charged with purging those sent to them of sin, draining it from their souls a drop at a time. Having gorged themselves on Anima for millenia, the Venthyr have become slovenly and gluttonous, much like those they are charged over. Content to whittle away their existence, rumours have begun to arise of the unfitness of the realm’s master. If he were to be replaced, perhaps Revendreath may find itself changing course to a better future…

These four Covenants will be the main drawing point of Shadowlands. Players will progress through each zone in a linear fashion, working cooperatively with each ruling body to reunify their disparate forces. As they do so, you’ll be able to unlock two abilities for aligning with that faction, both of which will change if you change your Covenant. One is a movement related ability for outdoor use, while the other is a class-specific combat ability much like Legion’s artifact powers. Each faction will have unique cosmetic rewards and armor tied to each, from winged cloak replacements to upgradable mounts.

 

Plate Covenant Armor Rewards, From Left to Right: Necrolords, Venthyr, Kyrians, Night Fae

Each Covenant will also have a Sanctum which game director Ion Hazzikostas described as a melding of Legion’s Class Halls and progression that players participated in with Suramar’s Shal’aran. As players work to return their Covenant to its former glory, they’ll recruit allies, establish portals, and develop their new domain into a symbol of hope for the Shadowlands. Tied into the allies you will recruit is the new Soulbind system.

Choosing one of your newer allies, players may bind their soul to them to gain new perks and abilities much like passive talent trees. These will be empowered, as well as several other Covenant tools, by Anima. Collected throughout a player’s adventure in the Shadowlands, this Anima will be used to progress through the talent tree and unlock relic-like slots for players to input passive effects into. On stage Hazzikostas confirmed, much to the roaring applause of the crowd, that Anima would not be an infinitely grindable treadmill such as what players experienced with Artifact and Azerite power in Legion and Battle for Azeroth.

All of this will lead up to players returning to the Maw, the infernal domain of the Jailer once more. Intended to be an endgame experience for max-level players, the Maw is an inhospitable and unfriendly wasteland; there are no innkeepers. There is NO safety. It is only yourself, those you take in with you, and the unnerring gaze of the Jailer and his forces. The rewards of venturing in can be risky and great, though anything you do can earn the gaze of the realm’s dark guardian. Should the Jailer notice you, he may send kill squads to engage you, rain fire from his tower, or more.

 

An in-game rendering of Torghast, the prison for the worst Souls in existence.

In the center of the Maw stands Torghast, the Tower of the Damned. An infinitely generated experience, this 1-5 player scaling pseudo-dungeon is based off of elements from roguelike games such as The Binding of Isaac. Each time you enter the halls of the ever-changing complex, it will be different in both it’s layout and what enemies are generated. The deeper you progress into the Jailer’s domain, the harder it will become, but the rewards will be great if you can make it out alive.

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has an open release date of 2020, putting it a little over a year away at most. Players can pre-order the expansion now for exclusive rewards, including the ability to make a Death Knight of ANY race with the launch of Patch 8.3.

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WoW Wednesday: How Shadowlands Fixes Leveling

World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has been announced to wild and dramatic buzz throughout the MMORPG’s community, even prior to its finale patch for Battle for Azeroth. In previous Blizzcon coverage this week we discussed its premise and the main hooks into its story. However, a much greater discussion is to be had about the game systems; what will build up the vital aspects of gameplay for adventurers coming into a new expansion. Before we discuss the endgame and the particularly ‘newer’ bits of content, it is far time for me to give Blizzard-Activision some accolades.

While Shadowlands is still quite some ways off, with a promised 2020 release date despite very early work being displayed at Blizzcon, Blizzard and director Ion Hozzikostas seem to be making a step in the right direction. The new player experience has become a paramount discussion, particularly with issues and questions raised regarding the Draught of Ten Lands and the widespread bans that came with it. In an effort to correct and assist in it a number of large-scale changes are coming to all of Warcraft.

The first, and one of the more controversial, is the level squish. Previously, World of Warcraft has had two major stat squishes in an effort to reduce numbers. The first, at the start of Warlords of Draenor was quickly undone in roughly two patch, with the second coming at the end of Legion to combat player health pools reaching into the multi-millions. This level squish is not unlike that, though there’s no word if we’ll see a stat squish come alongside it for the new expansion. With Shadowlands players will cap out at level 60, with all current max-level players being squished down to level 50.


The reason for this, as Hozzikostas explained, is two-fold. The first, is that leveling is INCREDIBLY long. In working on a 15th anniversary review for this website, I’ve easily clocked over 30+ hours on new max-level characters. The second, which we’ll dive more into momentarily, is that there simply isn’t enough to create intrinsic reward systems. With how few and spread out both abilities and talents are you could go for nearly 15 levels with some classes before getting a new thing. Previously, the effort to combat it was making leveling flexible in a sense; players would start on Cataclysm’s Azeroth, graduate to a pair of expansions, and unlock more every 20 levels. However, players would STILL out-level expansion related content with this new system. With a major focus on end game, newer players would apparently become confused with the lack of dungeon-guided content to participate in.

Instead, all of this has been completely scrapped.

Now, new players to Azeroth will play through their first ten levels on a completely new zone. Exile’s Reach is a small island off the coast of Stormheim, and it’s there that your faction has sent an exploratory force. They have since gone missing, and you’ve been recruited to assist in discovering their whereabouts and safety. This zone will culminate in a flexible, 2 boss dungeon for up to 5 players where heroes will thwart the efforts of a dragon-worshipping ogre cult! From there, new players will be guided to Battle for Azeroth content to level from 10 to 50, before being introduced to Shadowlands. Reportedly, this squish will make leveling through Battle for Azeroth to 50 roughly 50-70% faster.

In line with this system, Blizzard wants to have Veteran players making new characters feel like they’re investing in more of, ‘a New Game+ system.’ Players who have already completed Exile’s Reach may choose to level in their original racial starting zones, and afterwards may talk to Chromie to level through ANY expansion content. The reasoning for it is to make the player experience more flexible overall, while allowing people to enjoy entire expansions worth of content without interrupting the story. Citing Mists of Pandaria as a prevalent example for this, players would reportedly complete the Jade Forest, half of their second zone, and suddenly be ready to dive into Warlords of Draenor content. Death Knights and Demon Hunters will now start at level 1 for any starting zone, leveling up to 10 by the time it’s completed. Allied Race characters, as is the current course, will start at level 10.


This, in no simple terms, is a brilliant fix.  In discussions I just had last week with a member of my guild, the notion of making, ‘every piece of past expansions relevant’ came up; that desire to explore ALL of Azeroth and have it matter. Right now, Azeroth feels cracked into splinters with its wealth of content, but shallow level banding and irrelevant storytelling in older zones. Between initiatives in Timewalking and now this new leveling system it quite holistically unites the whole world. It makes it a cohesive Roleplaying Game again.

Imagine your first MMORPG, or even your first RPG. That exploration of a world foreign to you despite its threats. Games without enemies, like Shadow of the Colossus, do exceedingly well in this by making every piece of its world’s content relevant. Games such as Dragon Age face issues where, while new exploration is exciting, the challenge quickly begins to fade when you blow past enemies. Melding those two philosophies together, allowing you to explore a self-contained continent WHILE it still being relative to how you progress your character, is the perfect solution players have been crying for since we first broke the level 100 barrier.

This is enriched with the Great Unpruning. Jokingly referring to himself as ‘Ion the Unpruner,’ Hozzikostas revealed to a joyful crowd that classes would be having abilities returned to it. Citing issues with individual specializations carrying more identity than the class, the team has begun working on breaking down barriers to equip classes with old abilities and more utility. Some abilities, such as the Druid’s Cyclone, will be removed from the Talent Trees and reintroduced as a baseline ability. Others like the sorely missed Shattering Throw for Warriors, are being unretired and brought back into the game. Classes like the Mage will have spells like Frostbolt as a standard, with specializations adding more abilities regarding that spell, instead of mass-stripping and exchanging spells wholesale.

The idea seems to be to return to a mindset more in line with Classic’s development mentality. Each class has a large assortment of baseline abilities, some relevant to their current rolls and some not. Arms Warriors, provided they have a shield, will be able to once again use Shield Block which is currently Protection restricted spell. Activating particular specializations will then add additional mechanics and abilities around what is already available instead of resorting and landscaping hotbars en masse. “Every priest can call upon the Light,” lead game designer Brian Holinka said on stage, “And they can harness the shadow… That shouldn’t change between specs.”


In doing this every class reportedly should get something new every level. While its not necessarily a long-term fix for Warcraft, particularly if we have a whack of expansions in the future, it solves the fundamental problem currently. Players are once more intrinsically rewarded as they level. End-game and high-level players will now have a far more adaptable and complex toolkit to experiment with. Even in the case of the Warrior, where both DPS specializations are essentially build-and-spends around damage windows, even just adding Shattering Throw opens up the field FAR wider. Is it wiser to use it as an additional Colossus Smash to make the most out of an early Avatar, or is better to spend it on soon-spawning adds?

The problem, however, comes in with Blizzard’s new penchant for ‘temporary’ abilities. With spells such as the Artifact power abilities and now our Essences for the Heart of Azeroth, they will disappear at the end of the expansion. These spells are irrelevant with new content. This trend will continue in Shadowlands with Covenant Powers, abilities your benefactors will impart to you in exchange for your allegiance. Invariably, much like Shaman Totems, players WILL get connected to these incredibly unique abilities and will miss them once they are gone. While Legion reintroduced several powers into Talent Trees, many are still compulsory and have the entire class built around them. Eventually we will return to the problem of ‘not enough reward,’ in leveling, especially if when the 9th expansion comes out, Shadowlands has to compete with Battle for Azeroth for the 10-60 bracket of leveling.

Ultimately, time will tell if these systems hold true. All in all, the level squish and new changes to dynamic leveling are a massive step forward. Exile’s Reach, if successful, may become a wonderful system for engaging and reaching out to new players. While focusing on getting to the endgame still seems to be the team’s main design direction, honing the first ten levels does remarkable dividends. Making what new players experience more in line with what they can look forward to in the endgame not only culls player confusion but has better chance to retain new adopters. After all, don’t you enjoy playing something if you know exactly what you’re getting into?

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WoW Wednesday: Your Guide to Blizzcon 2019

The best weekend of the year now dawns upon us! Blizzcon 2019 has finally arrived and with it comes a smattering of panels, showings, demos our loot this year begins with a wide spread of content from World of Warcraft cosmetic armor to unique Overwatch skins. This week we’ll be giving you the best tips and directions to make the most out of your Warcraft experience at Blizzcon this year!

Like last year, virtual ticket holders already have a wide host of content prior to the launch of the convention on Friday, including content released last year. Starting on October 31st we’ll have the beginnings of the Overwatch World Cup to begin parsing through, lasting over 12 hours! This will be where the online preliminaries begin for the fabled e-sports tournament and will feature competitors from all about the world.

Blizzcon opens up live on Friday, November 1st, with the Opening Ceremony being streamed from all available stages at 2 PM EST! This will feature planned action from all of this year’s competitions as well as several previews of what’s to come that day on each stage. Immediately afterwards the major world tournaments will begin in Halls A, B, C, and the main Arena. Viewers can grab access to the continuation of the OWCs in Hall A, as well as the lower brackets for the Mythic Dungeon Invitational in Hall C. The Hearthstone Global Finals begin in Hall B, while the Starcraft 2 Global Finals begin with the Quarterfinal in the Arena. These events will continue throughout the weekend until the final brackets of the Overwatch World Cup on Sunday morning.

Some of the leaked “exclusive prints” from the Blizzard Website, featuring “Warcraft: Shadowlands.”

On the Mythic Stage in Hall D, where major announcements were hosted last year, are a set of secret panels. Featuring 4 panels over the course of the Friday, there’s enough for each of Blizzard’s main development games, with side-panels for Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone being hosted later in the day. With rumours of a potential new World of Warcraft expansion, featuring Bolvar Fordragon the Lich King, as well as the potential leaks of an Overwatch and Diablo sequel this will be the stage to watch all day Friday.

The first major Warcraft panel begins at 3:30 PM EDT. Quarter Century of Warcraft Audio hallmarks the anniversary of the titular game and brings the Sound Team to the stage to discuss developments throughout the series’ life cycle. Discussing not just sound effect development, but composition and scoring of tracks, the team will discuss this avidly and openly in the North Hall.

Starting up on the North Hall on the Epic Stage, players will get to enjoy a Heroes of the Storm update at 6:15 PM, one that is sorely needed after the fallout from the close of the Heroes e-sports scene this year. Blizzard Animation: The Art of Setting the Scene will follow at 7:15 PM, featuring members of the Story and Franchise Development team and how they created the Overwatch cutscenes that have earned the company critical acclaim. Hearthstone will have its own update at 8:15 PM after the Mythic Stage closes for the Cosplay Exhibition. Here, it’s been teased that the company will launch a new Expansion for the collectible card game, with advertisements across the internet pointing towards the date specifically.

Beginning Saturday at 12:30 pm, the 2019 Hearthstone Global Finals will take off in Hall B, beginning with the quarter finals decider’s matchups. The tournament will run throughout the day up until the finals at 6 PM on the stage. The World of Warcraft Arena World Championships will launch alongside it, beginning with their lower quarterfinals and ramping up to the Grand Final beginning at 9:45 PM.

The rest of the day is largely filled with a foray of very interesting developer driven panels largely centering around Diablo and Warcraft. At 1 PM begins the Voices of Azeroth: A Hero’s Journey, involving several voices behind the heroes of Azeroth. Joined by members of the developer team, they’ll discuss vital narrative moments over the years and how they were created.

Running simultaneously alongside the panel is the Watchpoint Season Preview for the 2020 Overwatch League, as well as the Artists at Work series for Diablo. This particular panel will focus about environment design, bringing the world of Sanctuary to life! An additional Art of Diablo panel will go on later during the day at 7:15 PM, featuring other members of the team.

At 2:15 PM Blizzard will begin their Update panel for World of Warcraft. Here is where, undoubtedly, we’ll see two certain things. With the announcement of a new expansion coming the day before attendees will more-than-likely be hearing details about Patch 8.3, ‘Visions of Ny’Alotha.’ Projections have 8.3 launching in early to mid-January of 2020, with a potential expansion launch perhaps a year and a half later.


In a surprising move, there are quite a multitude of Blizzard life panels throughout the weekend, featuring discussions about working on campus at Anaheim. Beginning at 6:15 PM, Artists at Work: World of Warcraft will run alongside the Warcraft 3: Reforged panel, discussing the process of art development from demonstrations and prototypes to a final finished product. The development team also takes the stage to discuss their personal stories during World of Warcraft: Developer’s Tales at 7:15 PM. New to the convention this year is CodeCraft: Exploring Blizzard Engineering. This panel, kicking off at 8:15 PM, features members of the company’s engineering team on how games and systems are coded for consumption.

On top of additional update panels and The Writers Room: Building the Worlds of Blizzard, the convention as always is set to go out with a bang. Beginning with some remarks at 9:45, every stage will come to life with the always titanic Closing Ceremonies. Featuring leagues of performers taking to the stage, this year the entertainment has been kept tightly under wraps. Even on their website, nothing has yet been announced to close out the company showcase.

Blizzard Entertainment opens its doors to the world in Anaheim this weekend, from November 1st to the 2nd.

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