Invasion Tourism

Moonlit skies served as the backdrop for my brief return to Azeroth during the last week and a half of August. Having satisfied my once-per-month Blaugust posting schedule on the very first day of the event, I was left with thirty days of not-blogging in which to faff about to my heart’s content. I spent much of that time looking for something to fill the gaps left by The Secret World and my diminished interest therein after several months of deep diving into its post-story activities. I’ve come full circle and now face the irritating but predictable realization that it, like every other persistent multiplayer game, houses its share of very vocal veteran players with sometimes scary values who on one quiet evening reacted with indignation to the schoolmistress – yours truly – who dared suggest that fora for helping new players were perhaps not the best place to use as their high-rollers’ social club. I have learned my lesson.

It was a moderate measure of desperation that thus sent me with wallet in hand back to Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms. The fact that the blogroll sidebars of my WordPress feed’s dramatis personae were filled with glorious tales of cross-faction, group-agnostic mayhem also helped. What would be just another Thursday evening in Guild Wars 2 constitutes a once-an-expansion special event in World of Warcraft and was titillating enough to attract my temporary patronage.

I paid for a month’s subscription on my secondary Warlords of Draenor account, my main account of nine years presumably entombed somewhere in the deep freeze storage of Blizzard’s server farms, and started messing about with new characters on the Argent Dawn server. I started with a gnome hunter whose randomized moniker, Pepperixie, required a mechanical rabbit named Saltinatrix. She was followed by a draenei warrior whose name I cannot recall. A human priest was born into the world and vanished into the depths of the Fargodeep Mine, never to return.

It was then that Big Brother correctly pointed out that all of my characters are Blood Elves. My characters have always been Blood Elves.

Another hunter, this time with a pet dragonhawk named Butterfly in tow, reached level 20 before stepping outside the realm of time and space. Her abilities and auto-attacks had the effective force of releasing party snakes from a tin and popping the tops off cans of Pringles in the general direction of my enemies. Hardly impressive. A warlock reached level seven before I remembered that managing pets has never really been my thing.

My old Wrath main, a discipline priest, reached level 28 before I succumbed to the need to be entirely self-sufficient as well as a decade-long affliction with anti-alt-itis. Which class wears plate, can do all the things, and has glowy hands? Paladin.

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The best way for lower level melee characters to advance was by participating minimally.

It took an hour to get her to level 10, the minimum level required to participate in the invasion events, and another hour of flailing about in a mish-mash of starter gear to hit level 20. Ten levels and several reward chests later saw me in a full set of level-appropriate plate armor wielding a fearsome one-handed axe and a garbage can lid. Shields were not on the menu, nor were necklaces, rings, cloaks, or trinkets. It didn’t matter terribly much once I discovered that the ideal strategy for a melee character who was not level 100 and did not have hundred of thousands of hit points was to not die.

It turns out that not dying accelerated the leveling process dramatically. Somewhere in the 30s I switched from my preferred aggro-magnet Protection specialization to Retribution’s four-button damage rotation so that I could throw Judgment hammers without being immediately murdered. Later, in my 80s, I switched to Holy so that I could use Holy Shock, which has a 40 yard range, as opposed to Judgment’s 30 yard range. Despite the fact that enemies in the group encounters dynamically scale to each player’s level individually, many of them – most notably the bosses in Stage 3 of the event – have one-shot mechanics that send almost everyone, regardless of player and item level, to the graveyard.

The events had four stages: defend (easy), bosses (easy), boss train (medium to hard), end boss (graveyard zerg hard). Once you were able to purchase your flying mount at level 60, which was easily done by simply selling excess rewards from the invasion chests, it was paramount that you kept up with the boss train in Stage 3 to maximize experience gains. What I learned to do, then, was to tag bosses with one or two abilities and then run away as far as I could while keeping the boss in view. While doing so, I learned the bosses’ abilities and was able to gradually move in and melee where possible. More often than not, however, I chose to stay far, far away in order to avoid the copious one-shot mechanics. Death in Stage 3 meant no experience when the boss dies unless you were able to get back to the boss and tag it again (and not immediately die again) before it went down.

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Let’s play a game called “Find the One-Shot Mechanic.”

Among these mechanics were death auras with an eighty-yard diameter (hence the preference for dipping in and out of maximum range with Holy Shock (40 yards)) and a spell called Delirium which made all affected players hostile to one another despite the fact that PvP was disabled during the event (even in hostile territory). Delirium requires the affected player to take 50,000 damage in order to clear the debuff. Guess who doesn’t have anywhere near that many hit points and gets one-shotted by a level 100’s multi-hit ability when they run up to tag the boss?

Yeeeeeaahhhhh. Kinda kills the cooperative feel of the event.

And that was really the main thing that kept me doing it night after night for 99 levels over 32 hours and 44 minutes /played: players of all kinds came together to achieve a cooperative goal. No grouping was required. Everything needed to advance your character was found within the invasion event. You may protest this fact and tell me that this cheapens the leveling experience; I would not disagree. However, I do not care to expand on this particular philosophical topic because this experience for me was mostly about shutting off my mind (in the futile hope that it would perhaps wander off and forget to come back).

In other words, I did it for funsies. Cooperative game play has become my source of joy to the point where I take little interest in fighting other players. “Why are we fighting?” I ask myself. I have no problem with the other faction(s). “Why don’t we just hang out and have horseback archery competitions or something?” Sounds like fun to me.

After I had my fun, I opened enough chests to get a full set of level 680 armor and vendored the remainder before heading off to the auction house, where I bought the cheapest, highest-level items I could find to fill the remaining slots. I transmogrified the helm and cloak slots to the “hidden” appearance, logged out to the character select screen, took a screenshot, and sent Chrysanth off into a deep slumber from which I expect she will wake one day when the mood takes me.

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Nostalrius: Goodbye, Classic WoW

We interrupt these fictional proceedings with a hefty dose of reality: the popular private classic World of Warcraft server Nostalrius is shutting down after having received a very real legal threat from Blizzard. Nostalrius is based in France and therefore ostensibly outside the realm of Blizzard’s operating interests; not so, in this case, as lawyers in the US and France have been enlisted to combat this unsanctioned phantom blow to Blizzard’s coin purse:

Yesterday, we received a letter of formal notice from US and french lawyers, acting on behalf of Blizzard Entertainment, preparing to stand trial against our hosting company OVH and ourselves in less than a week now. This means the de facto end of Nostalrius under its current form.

As soon as we received this letter, we decided to inform the team and players about the future of Nostalrius, where we have all passionately committed our time and energy as volunteers.

Nostalrius Begins PvP, Nostalrius Begins PvE & Nostalrius TBC and all related servers will be definitively shutdown at 23:00 server time on the 10th of April 2016, if our hosting company keeps the server online for that long. It feels kind of unreal, but we want to continue to serve our players as we did, and the best we can in the remaining time.

Source: Nostalrius Forums via Massively OP

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I was playing on their PvE server – you know, that thing I’ve said I’m going to stop doing a million times and then continue to do. Sometimes I tell you, sometimes I don’t. Just kidding. I always confess my sins, eventually.

In this case I was playing a Night Elf Priest and had reached level 32. She’s sitting in Southshore in the inn right now, waiting to regenerate full rested experience for another go-round through the next section of VanillaGuide, an in-game browser-style addon which is nothing more than a bunch of LUA strings that tell you what to do and where to go. You can link this up with the MetaMap addon and get functional if somewhat crude arrows that will point you in the direction of your next objective. It’s a nice way of swimming in nostalgia without having to be quite so nostalgic when you don’t want to be.

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The main draw for me was that they offered a PvE server. Finally, I could stroll through Stranglethorn Vale, my favorite zone, along with Hillsbrad, Arathi Highlands, and other familiar environs without the threat of being randomly corpse-flopped onto the ground by an undead rogue whose sole purpose in life was to find and waylay Holy Priests such as myself. Any emulated server I had ever found that was worth playing for any length of time was always PvP – Nostalrius was the one exception in probably five or so years of my love-it-and-leave-it relationship with Azeroth in its first three iterations. Unlike Rebirth or Valkyrie, it had an active population in the thousands – 2,500 at its peak, which meant that 1) it reached the classic-era server cap and 2) finding dungeon groups was much, much easier.

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The PvP server, on the other hand, was for people who wanted to be really nostalgic about things: with 13,000 players online, your first step off the flight path into a contested zone would be into a sea of corpses and your second step would see you join that sea of corpses. I don’t have the patience for open world ganking in my alone-together MMOs. They were working on sharding which would have allowed chunks of the player population to occupy their own map instances while still able to send tells to each other and so forth.

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All for naught it is, now. I have no regrets, though. Those 32 levels took me places I wanted to go and I was fully aware that it could all come crashing down at any time whether it was due to the abovementioned legal threat or otherwise. It’s not about the pixels or the numbers, but about the experience of having played and remembered. Whether I look for a replacement is still up in the air; if I find one, you’ll hear about it eventually.

So long, Nostalrius, and thanks for the good times.

Level 10 Paladin in full heirlooms.

A Momentary Lapse of Reason

Whatever it was that possessed me to resubscribe to World of Warcraft for a month didn’t stick around very long. Apparently the evil spirits had better things to do. After 16 months of radio silence I coughed up the $14.99 required to play past level 20 and even went so far as to activate the ten-day trial for Warlords of Draenor. Somewhere in the back offices of Blizzard’s billing department my account is being used in a PowerPoint presentation for new hires as an example of why you always, always quietly file away a formal letter requesting deletion of one’s Battle.net account and let it sit. It’s this kind of dogged persistence that makes for successful money collectors, I suppose, with the caveat that anyone with scruples will go to the trouble of verifying that the person in question is actually attached to the account.

Given that I am indeed the owner of an account which remains undeleted, I have nobody to blame but myself. They had waited patiently and it had paid off for them. I wish I could say the same for myself when it came to whatever bizarre rationale I had come up with for briefly venturing back to my old stomping grounds in Eversong Woods. “You can never go back there again,” says Billy Joel. Somehow I thought I could go back to Captain Jack’s special island without the captain. I had this pie-in-the-sky notion that I could perhaps recreate some of the glory days of the past in which I stabbed with all my might and healed my little skirt off. I fancied it an “experiment” but not really – I knew in advance what the outcome would be, just not the way in which it would play out. This is what I was interested in.

Underwater motorcycle chauffeur.
An orc in a top hat drives me around on his motorcycle. Underwater. This pretty much sums up my appreciation for the world of Azeroth.

My plan was to acquire all of the heirlooms – all of them, even the ones I wasn’t going to use – and equip them prior to engaging in battlegrounds and dungeons at varying levels, most of them on the lower end of the 1-100 spectrum. Now that you can simply buy everything with gold, I came up with a fiendish pay-to-win plan that would have purists agitatedly cleaning their monocles while peering disapprovingly at their screens from beneath the forehead-hugging brims of their top hats: I would buy WoW tokens, sell them for gold on the auction house, and then buy out the heirloom vendor.

It worked. It took two WoW tokens to get enough gold to buy all 68 of the heirlooms accessible to my character. My two level 90 characters, my Paladin and my Rogue, were still in the guild they had been in when I quit the game sixteen months ago. Given that they call themselves <AFK Again>, I must say that they have absolutely lived up to their name. My Rogue had somehow achieved Honored reputation with them and the collected members, most of whom appeared to no longer exist (or were, as I was, AFK again), had leveled all of the professions up to the maximum level, thus qualifying me for access to all of the presents in the guild vendor’s velvet sack of goodies including the necklaces. Everything else was found on a vendor in the Undercity who also carried items that would allow you to increase the maximum functional level of the heirlooms from 60 to 90. I had a Discipline Priest at level 57 and a level 20 Destruction Warlock whom I had long favored, so I decided to use up the remaining 10,000 or so gold that I had to pay the “graduation fees” for my intellect heirlooms.

I started off my adventures by leveling up another Paladin and Rogue to 10 and immediately queueing for battlegrounds. The Paladin was a wash: I couldn’t kill anything and the dominant classes would simply crush me. On my Rogue, I fared a little better but only in team fights. I simply couldn’t overpower most classes fast enough to keep up with their teammates or their heals. There just aren’t enough tools at lower levels to provide a satisfying level of complexity or depth, so I suppose my backup plan of PvPing on my starter account once the subscription runs out would only be fun if I were to play as a Discipline Priest, which can outheal everything ever, or as a Feral Druid whose signature low-level ability is to cause their target to suddenly be staring at the “Release Spirit” dialog box.

I moved on to my level 20 Hunter whom I took through a dungeon or two to refresh myself before heading out into battlegrounds. The rotation was simplistic and indeed my WeakAuras set up was still functional, so I had only to press the button displayed on the screen to optimize my damage output. Pathetic, I know, but it’s an experiment, you see. I then hopped into battlegrounds and turned in a middling performance. I could kite well enough to not die for a reasonably long period of time, but it was a crapshoot as to whether I could pump enough damage into an enemy player to bring them down before anyone who knew where their healing buttons were showed up.

I went up the levels yet again. I didn’t feel like playing my level 90 characters based on the presumption that the cool gear they were rocking at the end of Mists of Pandaria would be replaced by a godawful hodgepodge of quest green football helmets and wrestling championship belts, so I switched over to my level 57 Priest. A few dungeon runs saw most of the auction house greens in the non-heirloom equipment slots replaced with blue-quality items. Off into the battlegrounds I went, where I was focused relentlessly but had my day in the sun: it was my turn to spam self-heals while laughing maniacally and not dying, mostly, except when I was tanking half the team (or a really persistent Feral Druid) and half of my team was facetanking the floor. Of all of the classes, my Discipline Priest with roots in Wrath of the Lich King is the only one with whom I still have a mechanical, tactile, deeply vested connection. My torrid romance with my tanking Paladin was an entirely egoic affair; having revisited some of the PvE content I can’t say that I’d want to tank any of it. I suppose the one redeeming quality it has going for it is that the health bar whittling is not as overtly laborious as Final Fantasy 14’s.

I digress. I rather enjoyed the mid-level range of skills I had available to me. Prayer of Mending and Power Infusion were absent at that level, which was disappointing, but most of the old standbys were there: Power Word: Shield, Prayer of Healing, Pain Suppression, Flash Heal, and Psychic Scream. My bars weren’t even half full, though, a product of the great Skill Pruning. Back when earning the ability to use flying mounts required you to feather your own wings and fly to the moon in the middle of a full-on space blizzard, I had 4-5 hotbars filled with skills that would see usage on a regular basis. Only a very few, such as Mind Sear used on a friendly player to flush out enemy Rogues when Arcane Torrent was on cooldown, were ever neglected to any worrisome degree (I might forget how to use them!).

It took about three or four days of heavy play to realize that I didn’t give a whit about much of anything except PvP healing and that I wasn’t interested in putting in the time to non-instantly level to 90 or 100. I also wasn’t interested in buying WoD even at 40% off, nor would I do the state-sponsored WoW token currency swap again to upgrade heirlooms from 90 to 100. Simply put, there’s a very, very small part of the game that I’m interested in, in passing, and that’s not enough to get any more time or money out of me. While I do appreciate the spammy, whack-a-mole dungeon vibe, the entire experience reeks of the acrid odor of burning plastic: it’s quick and dirty, tunnel vision fun that leaves me feeling icky afterwards. Upon reflection, I was always only ever interested in the quick and dirty combat game; the levels and equipment were part of the package that everyone just assumed came along for the ride. One’s rite of passage, if you will. I suckered myself into paying to accelerate a leveling process which, at this point in MMO development, might as well be described as a manufactured inconvenience.

Well, no more. There are good games out there that shirk this convention. The recent Steam fire sale saw me purchase and start playing The Secret World. I’m a couple years late to the party, but so what? It’s ooky-spooky story time with no levels or classes. I need to infuse more of that in my life and dial back on the job demands (like in FF14, literally job demands, except that game’s really good albeit on rails to the Nth degree). I’ll let you know how my bespectacled katana-wielding assault rifle-sporting student fares in the zombie apocalypse.

Firing an assault rifle in the dojang.