Monday, August 31, 2009

WoW combat thoughts

Over the last 10 days playing World of Warcraft again I did a lot of switching between characters. I played 5 different characters, from a level 1 paladin to a level 80 priest in full epics, with a druid in his mid-20s, a mage at level 72, and a badly equipped level 80 warrior in between. I didn't do any raiding, but did regular quests, daily quests, the Argent Tournament, and various dungeons on normal and heroic. And besides just having fun, I also took some time to reflect on what I was doing, and what gameplay was more fun, and what less so. In this post I'll just throw out some random thoughts on WoW combat, based on these observations.

What was striking in playing different characters in different situations was how different combat was in terms of interactivity. While I did find the paladin now much improved, a low-level paladin is still very little interactive. Most of the spells I have are buffs, like auras, seals, and blessings, which you cast before combat, not in it. Then I have healing and purification, which I don't cast much in solo combat either. The few remaining spells, like hammers, all have a relatively long cooldown. Thus at my low level (10 now), I quite frequently am in the situation that I have already pressed all the buttons I could possibly press in that combat, and until some slow cooldown finishes, I'm limited to auto-attacks. And of course the paladin starts with a slow 2-handed mace as initial weapon, and staying with 2-handed weapons is better in terms of maximizing dps. That means that in the combat not only do I have no buttons to press, but even the auto-attacks happen only every 3 seconds or so. 3 seconds can feel like an eternity when you watch you character and absolutely nothing happens. In fact I sometimes had the situation that I had killed 1 mob, a second mob was still hitting me, and I didn't even notice that my auto-attack wasn't turned on any more. I'm not giving up on the paladin yet, because I'm sure that with the levels he'll gain more and more buttons to press in combat, but right now low-level paladin combat isn't much fun.

The other extreme on the interactivity scale from my characters was the warrior tanking heroics (or Trial of Champions on normal). It used to be that warriors were limited by rage generation, but this is much less the case now. With the help of shockwave and glyphs that allow me to sunder armor on several mobs at once, I can effectively AoE tank, and the incoming attacks plus various rage generation talents mean my rage bar is never empty. That, plus being level 80, means I have dozens of possible buttons to press during combat. And not just some "rotation", but in a quite interactive way: I need to watch the mobs around me, and use taunt when I lose aggro on one. I need to be aware if an enemy starts casting spells, and reflect or interupt it. And I need quite a lot of positional and situational awareness to be a good tank. All that is *way* more interesting than paladin auto-attack soloing. But then I can't do it for hours on end. Not only is it difficult to always find a group, but also after a couple of hours I stress out on tanking, and need to do something more relaxing. The level 80 priest in heroics is similarly interactive, with me having to decide who to heal, and with what spells.

The druid and mage are leveling, thus often soloing, and less interactive. I must say the mage interactivity improved much since the introduction of more interactive talents. Up to Wrath of the Lich King I had gone for an extreme, but efficient, strategy of equipping my mage exclusively in gear than maximized his spellpower, which enabled him to reach level 70 using basically only the frostbolt spell. I simply had upgraded that single spell to an extent where any mob I had to kill for a typical quest dropped dead before it reached me, or at least before it could do much harm. That strategy still works, but now I have talents that randomly allow me to cast free fireballs, or randomly proc the frozen fingers effect, which makes that the instant ice lance is more effective than the frostbolt. Thus instead of casting the same spell over and over, I start with spamming frostbolt, and react to the procs of the talents which make other spells better. Thus while this is much less interactive than a tank or healer in a group, it is more interactive than the paladin, or the mage himself pre-patch 3.0.

The Argent Tournament introduced a new sort of gameplay into WoW, jousting, which is used for various daily quests, and the first part of the Trial of Champions instance. Now in principle I very much like the idea, because adding different modes of gameplay adds to the variety of World of Warcraft. In practice unfortunately I hate jousting, at least in its solo form. With the help of guild mates I did figure out an optimum strategy: Wait until the enemy rides away from you, charge him with button 3, during the charge hit button 1 to simultaneously strike him, then turn around immediately and hit button 2 to further reduce his shields. Works perfectly when I'm extremely fit and all this happens on a flat surface. As soon as I get slightly more tired, or there is some lag, or the stupid NPC decides to leave the arena and gets us tangled up in the decoration around it, jousting gets rather annoying. You get stuck somewhere, the NPC miraculously manages to launch 3 shield breakers in the time you need for one, or you lose the combat because you moved too far from the arena following the NPC. The whole thing is rather twitchy, with success more relying on you being able to turn fast and hit buttons fast, than on you making a right tactical decision.

And there is my preference in World of Warcraft combat in a nutshell: I do like being forced to make decisions, tactical decisions which need to be done inside of a second or two, but where making the right decision counts for more than being able to hit a button 100 milliseconds faster. I hate knowing that one reason I do badly in some forms of WoW combat is that I turn with the keyboard instead of with the mouse, because I think that the few milliseconds difference in turning speed should not make a difference in good MMORPG combat. But they do, far too often.

This penalizes people on slower connections, as well as middle-aged players like me, who move somewhat slower than teenagers. My wife, who plays WoW, but has a lot less practice with video games in general, already needs to call me every time a quest requires fast reaction time, like the Triage quest for first aid. I don't think she'd get far with jousting. And of course if you can't play Super Mario, you are also excluded from doing well in many modern raid encounters. Personally I don't think that this is what MMORPG combat should be about, there are enough other games for people to demonstrate their fast reflexes. I'd rather have that MMORPG combat evolved to become more and more tactical. Unfortunately that is not where the current trend is heading, a lot of new MMORPGs have much twitchier combat than World of Warcraft. But then, maybe the developers of these twitchier games should wonder whether they aren't shooting themselves in the foot by excluding a huge part of an aging demographic of video game players with slower reflexes. To be appealing to a mass market, MMORPG combat needs to be interactive, but not too twitchy.

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