So, as a mod author, I was able to get beta keys for my wife and my accounts so we could help with testing and get familiar with the content. I’ve spent a few weeks trying it out now and thought I would share my thoughts. The first and biggest thought is that this is NOT an expansion. It is a completely new game. Sure you may have characters that have gear that looks the same, have the same professions and have the same class, but from that point on, it’s a new ballpark. The graphics have gotten a major overhaul with shader based water and improved lighting and rendering. The game engine now supports loading content while you play and better in-game cut scenes. The combat system has been completely changed and focused on game play rather than mechanics. The quest chains have been redone to be more streamlined with better flow. Almost nothing of the current game really remains.
Overall I think the majority of the improvements are a vast improvement over the current game, though I think the scope of the changes may cause some tension when the expansion first comes out. Other areas really did suffer for the worse in some people’s views, but not without alterations in other areas to make up for it. A good example of this is the mass simplification of the gear system. Previously, if you felt like doing your own theory crafting, it was possible to take non-standard routes with gear and accomplish unique specializations that you couldn’t match with a standard Elitist Jerks build. Now this really doesn’t seem possible. There is some options for altering gear stats, but you don’t have enough subtly different variables to tweak anymore. To make up for this though, the skill aspect of the game has been refocused on game play. The pacing of combat has slowed, but the complexity has gone up. CC and cast breaking is back with a vengeance, as is damage avoidance. It’s less reflex based and more thought based to deal with the challenges each fight provides. Additionally, Bliz was nice enough to include really solid visual cues for things like ability procs. The emphasis on all this really seems to be a move towards trying to have a more natural interface with the game that focuses less on the mechanics of playing the game and more on what is actually happening.
What really makes this work is that Blizzard has also really taken the storytelling to a new level in this expansion. Epic story arcs covering entire zones and smoothly flowing throughout the zone, as well as the addition of heavy instancing and lots of in-game, in-line animation lead to a game that actually feels like you are in the story and your actions matter. So far I have made it through Vashj’ir and Deepholm and I can easily say these are two of the best zones Blizzard has made yet, with Vashj’ir quite possibly being their masterwork. Vashj’ir puts you at the center of the conflict between the Naga and the Tidehunter. Through heavy use of instancing and a smooth, flowing storyline, in addition to the smoother, more natural interface, this zone feels the most like you are actually making a difference and actually living out a story of any zone I have played before.
Deepholm was a little more like Borean Tundra in its layout, but with a main story arc that covers the entire area. As you work to repair the damage caused by the rift between Deepholm and the surface, you explore several subzones and interact with different factions in your quest. In both Vashj’ir and Deepholm, the questing and the instances run smoothly together with the dungeons acting as a cap piece to the story line, very similar to the way Deadmines and the Defias line worked, but to a greater extent.
The last major change, and perhaps the most significant for the longevity of the expansion is the guild leveling system. One of the main classical problems for guilds is that late in an expansion, players begin to leave. This leaves guilds unable to continue functioning since there are always new guilds cropping up and it can become impossible for any guilds to maintain sufficient momentum. The guild leveling system offers significant advantages to running with an established guild and should help momentum be maintained for a more consistent and stable experience. Also, guild reputation should help ensure stability by offering a reason not to switch guilds flippantly over stupid things since it will take time to re-earn guild perks and rewards if you switch to another guild. Conversely, with raiding switching to only allowing either 10 or 25 man raids to be done by any particular individual on a particular week, guild perks such as Cash Flow (which grants a portion of the gold looted by guild members as extra gold to the guild bank), act as an incentive for guilds to maintain an inclusive atmosphere extending beyond just a core 10 man team. Both the criteria of leveling and the perks lean towards benefiting large guilds and should encourage guild leaders to maintain large organized guilds, perhaps with a core raiding team funded by the guild bank and other teams for non-progression players.
I’ll try to post more as I make it through additional zones and get a better perspective on the expansion overall.