Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Updates on Metal Gear Solid 4 and Mirror's Edge

As regards Metal Gear Solid 4, it appears I may have spoken too soon. As recently as October 15, Konami sources were quoted as saying that an XBox 360 port of the game was something they "are looking into" due to "worldwide demand." The original quote has been pulled, according to the original report from Kotaku, but the teaser flash on Kojima's website is still inspiring curiosity.

EA DICE has announced upcoming downloadable content for Mirror's Edge, and it looks terrible. It is entirely time trials, which is great, but the setting has been changed from cluttered rooftops to massive, floating, three-dimensional geometric shapes reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid's virtual reality missions (without the floor). The only thing that is going to save this franchise at this point is a quality sequel that focuses on the run itself, not on the run as disassociated puzzle or the run as combat training.

Also, while I have not read a lot of news about it and I personally quit World of Warcraft several months ago, everyone I know who is still in the game tells me that Wrath of the Lich King lives up to the hype. Glad to hear it.

UPDATE: Ha! The new MGS game is for the iPhone, thus explaining for what the "i" in the aforementioned equation stands. I don't know for what the blatant homage to the pulsing green XBox power circle stands, other than a symbolic middle finger aimed squarely at the XBox. The universal power symbol does not appear anywhere on the iPhone. I stand by my previous assertion that there is some seriously mean-spirited nonsense going on, here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mirror's Edge: Holding On By Its Fingertips

Two-and-a-half stars out of five.

Mirror’s Edge, from EA DICE, is as far as I know video gaming’s first foray into the world of parkour. It executes the subject admirably. The innovative engine it uses to simulate running along rooftops and jumping from foothold to handhold to foothold is excellent; neither so difficult that it quickly becomes frustrating nor so forgiving that the player does not feel like he is working hard for every meter of ground. I frequently found myself holding my breath during particularly challenging leaps. The parkour portion of Mirror’s Edge could be a game in itself. In fact, it probably should have been.

I bought Mirror’s Edge despite warnings that it contained SWAT teams because I assumed that, as one friend described it, the enemies would be there to discourage slowing down. An important part of parkour is the speed with which one travels from point A to point B, and in a game with a plot that has nothing to do with the sport of parkour, there should be something in place to create a sense of urgency. I do not have a thematic objection to the presence of enemies in the game. Indeed, there are many ways that the police in Mirror’s Edge could have been utilized well to encourage constant movement, and on rare occasion the game does hit on one or two of them. Unfortunately, the developers do not seem to have recognized their value, and instead incorporate enemies as an unpredictable and frustrating element of their puzzle construction.

In fact, despite the game’s early warnings that hostiles should be avoided rather than fought, Mirror’s Edge is constantly putting the player in situations where direct confrontration, if not conflict, is required by the environment. The player’s radio contact repeatedly warns her to “be ready for a fight” from about the third chapter on. Police appear directly in the path of the player without explanation, even when that path involves overcoming considerable inaccessibility. And these are not the blue-uniformed pistol-bearing cops of the downloadable free demo. These are armored men carrying assault shotguns and rifles, and in some cases 50-caliber machine guns. If there is one message I want to express clearly in this review, it is this: the police are everywhere in this game. Expect the majority of this game to be parkour, but parkour under automatic weapons fire.

Even this could be forgiven, despite the fact that they are armed in this fashion to deal with the threat of a single woman armed only with her speed, if the police had good code governing them. But they do not. There is no stealth system in Mirror’s Edge. Enemies become aware of the player when they are activated, regardless of the player’s actions or concealment. And once they are aware of the player, they never lose track of her, no matter how insane or hidden her movements. The player will never step out of cover in Mirror’s Edge and not be greeted by a hail of bullets. The police can and do track the player around corners and through solid objects.

In many cases, the police do not spawn until the player has wasted too much time in a single area, but this is not universally the case, and there are a few locations in the game that contain enemies from the start and require the player to perform a time-consuming task while there, outside of cover and essentially stationary. The game never explicitly requires combat, but when climbing a pipe or opening a hatch takes two or three seconds, and the pipe or hatch are not protected, failing to deal with the armed men beforehand has predictable results.

In the end, what makes the combat in Mirror’s Edge a failure is not its inclusion but its execution. It would have been a simple matter to always have the police in a pursuit role, or if that became too contrived or difficult, to make the player significantly more vulnerable to gunfire while stationary and significantly less vulnerable while moving. Instead, the enemies are often directly in the players’ path, and gunfire is extremely erratic, to the extent that the player can make a run under fire without taking a single bullet that on a previous attempt resulted in her being gunned down instantly – and vice versa. If a designer is going to use gunfire in puzzle design, their algorithms for accuracy simply have to be more reliable than that. The demo could be beaten without taking a single bullet by making no more than two well-aimed slide kicks. If the whole game had played like that, this would have been a very different review.

The only thing keeping Mirror’s Edge from being a two-star game, despite the excellent parkour engine, is the time trial mode. These are genuinely fun rehashes of the parkour in the game’s story mode, often with some changes to the required route to keep things interesting. Unfortunately, in order to unlock these, you have to first beat the story mode of the game. The speedrun mode of the game is just the story mode with a timer attached, and adds no real value. Hopefully, if DICE produces a sequel, they will make the time trials available from the start and will also do something to eliminate or at least reduce the ubiquitous combat content from the original. Mirror’s Edge is not the game it should have been.

The final encounter of Mirror’s Edge is a short, entertaining boss fight that does not involve combat (only about half the “boss fights” in the game don’t), but rather quick and skillful use of parkour abilities. I successfully executed the required maneuver first try and happily watched the villain receive his comeuppance, only to then immediately succumb to the numerous high-powered gunshot wounds to my back. The experience defines Mirror’s Edge pretty well, in my mind – a good game ruined by poorly designed content that was irrelevant to begin with.

Also published at Gamestop.com and Amazon.com.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hideo Kojima and Console-Exclusive Game Releases

Last week, a friend of mine said that he had heard that Konami’s Metal Gear Solid 4 (warning – lots of Flash) had been confirmed for the XBox 360. Of course, I immediately began searching the internet for further evidence of this fact, and I found nothing – MGS4 for the 360 is still vaporware, if vaporware is even the term for something that was never intended or announced in the first place. But the search for more information did find me a 26 August 2008 Eurogamer interview with Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear games, that didn’t sit right with me. I feel the need to respond to what seems to me to be dramatic hubris on Kojima’s part.

Console video gaming is rapidly becoming the entertainment medium of the future – a quick look at the 57.7 million video game consoles sold globally in this generation of systems (Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony Playstation 3; normalized for 93 weeks after launch; vgchartz.com) compared to only 8.3 million two generations ago (Nintendo 64, Sega Dreamcast, and Sony Playstation) shows a positively stratospheric climb in the popularity of the hobby over the last fifteen years. Humanity is demanding a more interactive entertainment experience, and video gaming is the only medium that is responding in kind. But the genre suffers under a brutal yoke.

Multiple incompatible formats are an accepted and entrenched reality of the console gaming market, whereas in most entertainment media, multiple competing formats are discouraged by production and consumer pressures. Vinyl fought hard and maintained a market share alongside 8-tracks and cassettes, but in the current age of the CD it is almost unheard of. VHS beat Betamax. HD-DVD lost out to BluRay. But ever since the creation of the first consumer video game console in the late 1970s – 30 years ago! – the console gaming industry has been home to three to four contemporary and incompatible formats, with no clear winner ever emerging.

Individual generations always seem to have a victor who claims momentary dominion over the battlefields of the “console war.” In the early 1980s, Atari held the crown, succeeded by Nintendo, whose reign bridged the late 1980s and most of the 1990s. Sony conquered the market in the mid-1990s with the Playstation, and may still be on top of the heap today despite stiff competition from Microsoft’s XBox platform. But this has proven to be largely meaningless.

A video game hardware manufacturer is only as good as their next console, as evidenced by such dramatic fumbles as the Nintendo 64, a cartridge-based system that tried to contend with CD-based competitors in the mid-1990s, and the PS3, a modern system that blows its contemporaries away in terms of raw processing power and flexibility but suffers from poor public reception of its high price point (on which Sony took, and is still taking, a loss). The prince of one generation can become the whipping boy of the next very easily. More so than any other medium, console video gaming is driven by improvements in CPU and GPU power, and so Moore’s Law ensures that every few years failing hardware manufacturers will have a chance at redemption. And so the cycle continues.

For the most part, today’s console gaming fans do not suffer the way an early Betamax or HD-DVD adopter might have suffered, because the vast majority of modern console video games are produced by third-party companies who have no stake in a single piece of hardware. When a console “fails,” games are still produced for it throughout its lifetime. The most popular console games are typically released on multiple consoles, even those that are not selling as well as their contemporaries – and so gamers are largely free to pick the console they prefer based on the minor differences in the libraries available for each, and are not forced to pay large sums of money in order to own every system available in a generation. Considering that the total price tag for all three major consoles available in 2008 is close to US $1,000 after significant price cuts on both the PS3 and XBox 360, that is no small consideration.

But some popular third-party games buck this trend, hearkening back to an era when nearly all console games were proprietary, and multiple-format releases were rarely if ever simultaneous. One such game is MGS4.

By now it should be obvious to the reader that I oppose the idea of platform exclusives. As far as I can tell, the only beneficiary of the platform-exclusive policy is the manufacturer of the console on which the game in question is released. The game designer and publisher do not benefit – it limits their maximum sales to the sales of a single console. They save the cost of the port, but I have trouble believing that is significant in the grand scheme of development costs. The players of the game do not benefit, either – excepting considerable schadenfreude, which is certainly in abundance in the console gaming “community,” an XBox 360 player has no real advantage over a PS3 player if a game is XBox exclusive rather than a multiple-platform release. I am against things that benefit corporations at the expense of their consumers and employees to begin with, but I find the idea of a third-party company making a decision that benefits a business partner over their potential customers particularly distasteful.

In his interview with Eurogamer, Hideo Kojima complains that half of the questions he is asked at his appearances focus on the possibility of an XBox 360 release for MGS4. He expresses the desire to hear more fans asking “about Metal Gear, about us, about our future projects,” and the hope that fans “will stop caring about the hardware.”

Personally, I would love to talk to Kojima about his game, and not about the hardware that it runs on, but unfortunately I don’t own a PS3 and I have no intention of purchasing one. It’s entirely a matter of personal preference – of the top 20 PS3 games (according to metacritic.com), I am interested in exactly five, three of which are also available on the XBox 360. For me, Resistance: Fall of Man and MGS4 are not worth buying a whole new console for, no matter the cost involved. It is a shame, but there it is. I’m just not that big a fan of either game.

It seems to me that what Kojima implies in this interview is that if someone wants to play MGS4, he or she should not think twice about shelling out the cash for a PS3 and the game. I have to hand it to him – it takes balls of brass to claim, even indirectly, that you have designed a game that is worth ten times the asking price of its contemporary releases. If that’s not what he is saying, Kojima ought to knuckle down, put his money where his mouth is, and port MGS4 to the XBox 360. He clearly wants more people to enjoy his game, and that’s the only point of control he has over the situation.

That said, I suppose that I might as well weigh in on the question of whether or not I believe MGS4 will be ported to the XBox, despite Kojima’s reservations. To be honest, I’m not certain that it is the slam-dunk case it was back in January. Right now, there are five million more XBox 360s sold than PS3s, but that number is misleading because the 360 has been on sale for a year longer than the PS3. At 93 weeks past the XBox 360’s launch date, however, 11.2 million consoles had been sold. In comparison, 14.9 million PS3s had been sold after the system had been on the market for 93 weeks. And that number is growing faster than the total number of 360s sold. If Sony can keep up the momentum (and that is a big if, with many variables), it seems like they could pass or at least match the XBox 360’s cumulative sales numbers by this time next year. Some analysts are even suggesting that Sony will best Microsoft in 2008. With an average console generation lasting approximately six years, we will be only about halfway into the lifespan of these consoles at that point, and game designers will only just be hitting their stride with the new technology.

How does this affect a potential XBox release of MGS4? Well, with a theoretical release date of 12 to 14 months after the PS3 release, the game would be coming out just as the PS3 was making its play for dominance in the market. I’m not certain that I see any additional advantage to releasing for the XBox then than there is currently, and the current advantage is clearly not enough for Konami to justify a multiple-platform release.

It’s a shame, but there it is.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

D&D4: Two Months In

So it’s been almost two months since the launch of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. I’ve run several sessions using the new system. My opinion can be summed up as follows:

The game has its issues: needless complexity is greatly reduced, for instance, but this does not necessarily equate to faster play because rejiggered combat math means higher hit point totals and lower accuracies. Players calling out the same power names in every round and in every combat becomes extremely monotonous, but this is easily circumvented by forbidding players to call their powers by name. D&D4, like Third Edition and 3.5, still builds adventures around encounters, not encounters around adventures, and the rules for non-combat encounters have only made this more pronounced. The tactical reinvention of monsters and character classes means that the use of a battle mat is almost a necessity. But the game is fun. It is simple, engaging, and intuitive, and I look forward to playing well into the future.

Now, when can we expect the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition?

As much as I enjoy it, this game is simply not a substitute for any of the previous numbered editions of the game. It is the spiritual successor of the D&D Rules Cyclopedia and the original D&D boxed sets. I totally see where Wizards was going with this, and it was a good idea. It is very playable. But it is so simple that even I am a little squeamish, and I love games like Runebound, Descent, DUNGEON!, Talisman, and other RPG-like board games. That experience isn’t quite what I’m looking for when I sit down with friends to play D&D. It was sufficient when I was first starting to dungeon master for my friends in 6th grade. Now we all expect something that requires a little more thought and a little more initiative from the players.

From the ground up, characters are terrifyingly without flaw, in the new edition. There are no more ability scores below eight, and the guidelines don’t advise anything below 10. We are advised with extreme prejudice that evil alignment ruins the game. Whether or not you agree with the inclusion of alignment is immaterial – the exclusion of evil gods (and their Channel Divinity feats) from the PHB is a clear, mechanical indictment of that style of play that has nothing to do with philosophy. The races have no penalties to anything – they are each good at everything, and even better at a subset of things.

The classes in D&D4 are an exercise in simplicity. Even at 30th level, a character has a choice between only 17 actions to take in a given combat round, and seven of those choices are utility powers, not necessarily attacks. Both of those numbers drop quickly as encounter and daily powers are used. Note that this has nothing to do with the powers available in the book. This is not a problem caused by lack of splat. No matter how many powers a player can choose from, he will be limited by the 17 slots he has to put them in.

Now, admittedly, I have yet to play in a high-level D&D4 game, but it looks to my trained eye like combat that is already monotonous on the heroic tier is only going to get more monotonous once you pass 10th level. By that point, you’ve basically already got all the powers you are going to get – any future power gains replace powers you already have (with the notable exception of your three paragon path powers). Epic destinies don’t grant powers, for the most part – just traits. More survivability is always good, but choice is also nice, especially when you are high level and sporting aspects of two classes, a paragon path, and an epic destiny. I expected to find variety, and instead it looks like advancement only limits a character’s options.

The skill system in the game was no surprise – we knew how it was going to work for some time. I was never overly fond of it, but I accepted it on the basis of simplicity (if I never roll up a high-level D&D3.5 rogue again, I will be a happy man). The trouble is that the skill system, as it turns out, is indicative of an overarching simplicity that takes a lot of the personality out of the game. Athletics covers just about everything your average dungeoneer will need to do that does not involve his sword. Climbing, jumping, lifting, pulling, pushing… and everything that isn’t covered here is covered by Endurance or Acrobatics. Why don’t we call a spade a spade and acknowledge that these are nothing more than Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity bonuses, respectively? We’re back to First Edition, here. These aren’t skills. Some consolidation seems wise – Stealth, for instance, never made much sense to me as separate checks to conceal oneself visibly and audibly. But Thievery? Really? Why not just have a skill called “Fighting” and roll it repeatedly in combat?

Feats, fortunately, I have little problem with. Eighteen feats in thirty levels! There’s some customizability for you. I even feel like Wizards has managed to make every feat worthwhile to someone who might want to take it. There are still mechanically great feats and mechanically terrible feats, but at least the mechanically terrible feats don’t seem like they will destroy your character. I rolled up a dual-wielding level 30 wizard/rogue/daggermaster/demigod and wound up with two feat slots I didn’t know what to do with. That was a really welcome experience. The downside to the feat system is that feats serve to make an already perfect character even more perfect. I would really have liked to see some kind of drawback or disadvantage system to offset the rampaging effectiveness of the D&D4 character. Character flaws are apparently passé, in the new age of D&D.

Equipment seems to obey a few simple rules, and with a few exceptions, weapon power in a given class (one-handed or two-handed, simple or military) seem to fall into an easily recognized equation. This is important to me because I’ve always felt like characters shouldn’t be penalized for their equipment. There ought to be advantages to playing a knife fighter over a halberd fighter that make up for the massive loss in damage, and when you take into account the fact that the dagger is a one-handed simple weapon and the halberd is a two-handed military weapon, everything does seem to even out to a greater or lesser degree. I’m not terribly impressed with the superior weapons – the rapier in particular is clearly designed for rogues and only rogues. The shuriken is even more ridiculous – it’s a dagger that can’t be used in melee that you need a feat to use at all. Unless you’re a rogue, in which case it does more damage and you don’t need the feat. I’ve house ruled the shuriken out of existence and have given rogues that 1d6 damage with thrown daggers. Seems like a much simpler solution to me than having a spare superior weapon that no one will ever use. I’ve told my players that calling their thrown daggers “shuriken” is completely acceptable, if it makes them happy.

Magic items… good lord. The system that adjudicates magic items is fine, I suppose – it’s uniform, if straightforward, and it looks like fun – but there’s no way to randomize them. I’m not averse to throwing the PCs magic they can use once in a while, but I find this idea that dungeons should be stocked with treasure appropriate to the homicidal lunatics about to raid it a bit insulting. The treasure “tables” in general are completely devoid of randomization. Players beat monster X, they receive treasure X. And a LOT of treasure X. I’ve tried selecting treasure parcels using a 10-sided die… and I don’t recommend it. The gold piece has apparently been devalued, because everyone’s got a lot of them, suddenly. Some goblins could be using their stash for armor.

Combat seems stripped down until you realize that the new Combat chapter in the Player’s Handbook is the Classes chapter. Everything you could do in D&D3.5 you can still do in D&D4… if you’re a member of a party with a few martial heroes in it. Cooperation is much more important in the tactical environment of D&D4, because suddenly only the fighter can sunder weapons and armor (and only temporarily) and only the rogue can disarm (and only temporarily). Forget about using a ranged weapon unless you’re a ranger… but then, that’s nothing new. I like the new combat system, to be honest – I rarely, if ever, looked up from the PHB while adjudicating D&D3.5 combat, and I get more fresh air thanks to D&D4. But I feel for fighters, who seem to have traded their player-strategy-driven combat superiority for more-effective but ultimately less-satisfying game-system-dictated combat superiority. Marking is some seriously weak sauce, from a roleplaying perspective.

Behind the screen, encounter design no longer takes hours – that’s a major, major plus. I don’t have great faith in the “simple” level-adjustment system for monsters (I think it breaks down after only two or three levels in either direction, rather than five levels as Wizards claims), but that’s still better than the guesswork of the First and Second Edition Monster Manuals and Monstrous Compendia, or D&D3.5’s clearly arbitrary and never-playtested DC system. Creating new monsters is not quite as straightforward as it was in D&D3.5, but I welcome a return to intuitive dungeon mastering. The only real objection that I have is what I mentioned before about adventures following encounters, and not the other way around.

The black-and-white short rest and extended rest system works very well in a dungeon context, but overland it becomes a straitjacket. Logically, the party should encounter fewer and weaker monsters outside of dungeons. Fewer battles, however, means a better-rested party, which means more powerful encounters are required to provide challenge. Weaker encounters would mean that adventurers have to be attacked multiple times in a single day, in order to provide challenge. As a result of this and other symptoms, I feel pressure to orient my sessions around encounters rather than around story. I suppose this is not a new phenomenon, but I feel that the design of D&D4 brings it to an ugly head.

That about sums it up. I’ve not given up on D&D4 yet, but I find myself missing D&D3.5, and I never thought I’d feel that way. By the end of its lifetime, D&D3.5 was a terrible mess, and I dreaded every game I ran with it. I’ve recently been exposed to Earthdawn, Second Edition, and the elegance of that system (once you learn the step chart) has definitely spoiled me. D&D4 is fun, but it is less and less what I want to be running, as time goes on. If combat were faster, it would be a great beer and pretzels game. Perhaps future supplements will improve matters – I always enjoy a good board game expansion.

Cross-posted on the official Dungeons & Dragons forums.

Monday, July 28, 2008

A New Fan Has Joined Your Party!

My significant other has begun playing Final Fantasy IV for the first time, thanks to Square-Enix’s recent port to the Nintendo DS. We learned of this port about a year ago, a few months after she had discovered the DS and fallen in love with its intuitive interface and pick-up playability. I immediately expressed the hopeful opinion that the FF4DS release would be her introduction to the world of video roleplaying games, and she agreed that she would have to try it out, if only on my fervent recommendation.

I have always held that FF4 is my favorite among Square-Enix’s many offerings. The WonderSwan port is the only version of the game of which I do not own a copy – I even have translated and untranslated ROMs of the Japanese Super Famicom original. I begrudgingly admit that it is not the best of Square-Enix’s games – that honor still belongs to Final Fantasy VI, which essentially took a moderately upgraded version of FF4’s engine and blew the doors off of fans’ expectations for a VRPG in a fashion that has yet to be repeated. I enjoy FF4 more for a number of reasons, most notably the characters, story, and music. All three speak to me in a way that FF6 is hard pressed to match.

I bought FF4DS on release day mostly on blind faith. My significant other and I stay together largely on strength of personality and sincere mutual affection; we have few interests in common, and as I mentioned before, VRPGs are not one of them. She had frequently expressed distaste for games involving combat, and had responded to my argument that turn-based VRPG combat was puzzle-like by saying that it sounded boring. I had every expectation that I would the only person in our household to play FF4DS, but the possibility of sharing this story that I care about so much with my significant other made it worth buying one more version of the game.

I was nervous. I’d heard that the game’s difficulty had been ramped up from the Japanese original, and I thought for certain that, on top of her other concerns, would put her off the game. And she didn’t play it that first night, although she did open the game and read the book (she always reads the book, which I find adorable). But in the early evening on Wednesday, I heard the dulcet tones of Nobuo Uematsu’s Prologue wafting out of the bedroom, and I dared to hope. On Thursday night, she came into the front room with a troubled look on her face. I asked her what was wrong.

“Well, I got through the first dungeon. And the ring burned down the town, and we found a little girl. And something… bad happened. Now I can’t seem to go back the way I came, and I keep getting attacked by monsters! I found the entrance to another dungeon, but if I go inside I pretty much die instantly, and there’s nowhere else to go!”

I smiled and explained that she needed to find the desert town of Kaipo. I expressed my sympathies that it was proving so difficult, and her without a healer in the party.

“There’s a town? There’s no town on my map,” she despaired. “I get potions sometimes, and I had these tent things that I could spend the night in and restore my health, but the tent things are gone now, and the occasional potion just isn’t cutting it anymore! There’s this worm thing that shows up and does 200 damage to me, and that’s more than I have hit points!”

I promised her that Kaipo was there, having visited it a number of times myself. I discovered in doing so that I’d been waiting my entire life to give someone directions to Kaipo. I don’t remember the last time I felt so warm inside. Clearly I’m in the wrong business – I should move to the Sahara and become a burlap-cloaked, bestaved wanderer, pointing strangers in the direction of the nearest oasis.

Later that evening, my significant other had finally discovered Kaipo and moved on to the next stage of her journey, the Underground Waterway. She met Tellah the sage, and expressed great relief and wonder at how much easier his spellcasting abilities made her quest. I explained to her what his Recall ability does.

“Oh, like that wizard from Dragonlance, who was always trying to remember how to cast Fireball!”

I smiled. On my first playthrough of Final Fantasy IV, back in 1991, I renamed Tellah ‘Fizban.’ I asked her if the combat was giving her trouble, and she looked embarrassed.

“I kind of like it.”

Later that evening, as I was climbing into bed, I expressed an interest in trying the new version of the game myself, and I was admonished:

“Just don’t pick it up without telling me. You’ll overwrite my quicksave.”

Friday, March 14, 2008

WoW - Wrath of the Lich King update: Dragonblight

Blizzard Entertainment has updated the Wrath of the Lich King expansion preview on their World of Warcraft website with the latest in a series of zone descriptions, this time focusing on the dragon graveyard known as the Dragonblight.

My initial reaction is that I would be a lot more impressed if dragon skulls and spines weren't already standard palette for zone design in WoW. Instead, there are simply going to be more dragon skeletons in the Dragonblight than there are in any other zone, which I'm sad to say makes me shrug with indifference. The existence of this zone is not a surprise -- it has been included in WoW Roleplaying Game canon for at least two years (Lands of Mystery was published in April of 2006), and one would think that Blizzard could have prepared accordingly. I fully acknowledge that I'm geeking out, here, and that this seems like a fairly minor issue, but the zone seems riddled with similar unusual design choices.

Most notably is the revelation that the first humans to be infected with the Scourge lived in the Dragonblight. The flash video on the website features what seems to be a sizeable abandoned human settlement. It just seems unbelievable to me that the dragons, who are fiercely untrusting and protective of their secrets everywhere else in Azeroth, would allow anyone to settle in their sacred grounds in such numbers. A small tauren settlement does not stretch the limits of the imagination, but a large human town seems very out of place in a zone that is home to the dragonflight shrines and Wyrmrest Keep, and which is presumably littered with the spirits of the draconic dead.

The revelation that the red dragonflight will be joining the bronze as an ally to characters who are willing to do the necessary legwork is very welcome, although the establishment of the blue dragonflight as inimical is yet another disappointment. The lore paints the dragonflights (with the exception of the blacks) as being honorable, if distant, guardians, interested overall in the advancement of life and peace. In game, however, interaction with dragons comes primarily in the form of combat, even with those dragonflights with which occasional interaction of other kinds is possible.

I understand the lore supporting Malygos turning on the mortal races, and obviously, why his dragonflight would follow him. I do not understand why the bronze dragons were hostile to everyone before the Caverns of Time were opened (or, alternately, why they are so "welcoming," now). I don't understand why the red dragons around Grim Batol are hostile to everyone. I gather that the green dragonflight has somehow been corrupted by Hakkar's influence on the Emerald Dream, but that story remains to be told in full, and it will likely remain murky until the Emerald Dream is opened as a playable zone or instance. All in all, I feel as though the issue of draconic involvement in mortal affairs has been schizophrenic at best, and could really have been handled with more grace throughout the evolution of the game. But I'm diverging into another topic -- the handling of factions in general -- and I should save that for another post.

I am made really nervous by the mention of Angrathar, the Wrath Gate, and the Horde and Alliance "gearing up for the siege." This sounds suspiciously like the war effort event that was required to open the Gates of Ahn'Qiraj, which essentially involved the entire server slaving over fetch and gather quests, earning gear rewards, so that a few top-tier 40-man raiding guilds could get their content on. This entire premise seems completely backward to me, since it is the majority of the server population (including raiders, of course) that cares about content, but really just the raiders and PvPers who care about better gear. It seems to me that it would be better to give the raiders epic fetch quests for epic gear, and just make the new content five-mannable. I know that it bothers the designers that so many WoW players never see their work. But I acknowledge that my attitude is a bit radical. Content accessibility is another pet peeve of mine -- I'll leave that for another update, as well.

All in all, I think Wrath of the Lich King is shaping up to be more of the same, which is to say that it will be good stuff -- for a given value of good. Many of the improvements and additions to the way the game is played sound like they are going to be a lot of fun, but the new content is looking increasingly like it will be either irrelevant or inaccessible, which has proven to be par for the course. I look forward to discussing the expansion further as more information is revealed in the coming months.