WoW Factor: Levels and legends in the Legion alpha


The alpha testing for World of Warcraft‘s next expansion rolls on, with the vague hope that we might actually have a beta tag by the end of March. I mean, we almost have all of the specs in the testing now, and so all that remains is for the follower system that isn’t like Garrisons all over again we swear to actually be implemented before we have a test that is functionally feature-mostly-complete. That would theoretically mean beta, although we haven’t been given any actual roadmap beyond “by September.”

Scheduling and relevant terminology discussion notwithstanding, there’s more stuff to talk about with the alpha, and in a way having an extra couple of weeks provides more interesting information to chew on. As the live game sits in the midst of yet another content lull, let’s examine the testing, the philosophies that we know to be in place, and what all of this means for the longer-term health and design of the game.

Legendary items and Synnibar syndrome

Not that kind of transformation, but close.For some members of the audience, I don’t think I need to explain The World of Synnibar. For most of you, I probably do, and with good cause. The quick version is that it’s a horrible tabletop system that manages to wind up in so-bad-it’s-good territory due to the sheer insanity of its rules and setting; it’s the sort of thing that you’d enjoy if you love the tabletop gaming equivalent of films like The Room and Snakes on a Plane.

One of the dumber aspects of the game (in a game filled with dumb aspects) is that the game fundamentally turns classes around in the worst way. In most games, playing some crazy powerful class comes with a long list of weaknesses. Dungeons & Dragons, for example, gives Wizards phenomenal powers… but those powers can only be used a certain number of times in any given encounter, they have to be prepared ahead of time, and the class can frequently be slain by a stiff breeze. Massive power is balanced by drawbacks.

By contrast, Synnibar does the exact opposite. In order to have one of the really powerful classes, you have to have insanely high attribute rolls, and… that’s it. So the better classes are better in every way than the other classes, and playing them requires nothing more than luck instead of the ability to deal with drawbacks.

What does this lengthy diversion have to do with WoW? Legendary artifacts and “transformative” abilities.

Here’s the thing: I’m 100% in favor of putting massive, powerful, transformative abilities in the game. I’ve raved before about changes to talent trees that allow you to shift the entire playstyle of your spec between multiple different “modes,” and I’m always going to be in favor of elements like that. So I have no issue with the idea that Legion includes items with crazy powers that can have a huge effect upon your playstyle.

My issues entirely come back to the idea that these items are totally random. These are not powers or items you equip as part of a trade. It’s not “you move faster but take more damage,” it’s “you got really lucky so now you move faster.”

Random drops are exactly the place to include power increases, because having boots that randomly have a 10% power boost is fair. It’s still luck, but it’s luck that doesn’t change your whole playstyle. But the current state of random legendary rewards in the game is more akin to the items you find in roguelike games, where the whole point is starting, assembling a build from random rewards, and then refining what you’re doing over time based on those random rewards. I love this style of gameplay in, say, 20XX, which offers me an hour or so of play with a random slate that I get to shape over time. I’m not happy when we’re talking about characters I plan to play over the long term.

This is the same issue that already crops up with set bonuses, which more or less cause you to rewrite how your spec plays if you have enough people getting together on a regular basis to get shots at being lucky enough to get the set pieces. (There’s that luck again.) Transformative abilities are fine; gating them behind random chance in a persistent game is less fine.

Give me more transformative options if you want. Let me slot in gems or enchantments that have major effects on playstyle. But gate them via weaknesses, drawbacks, and then need to play around these elements. Don’t just gate them by whether or not I’m lucky enough to randomly encounter one. Dropping an item that’s massively more powerful in straight numbers is more than enough to make me feel immensely lucky; you don’t need to give me a huge mechanical boost on top of that.

Everything has changed, but absolutely nothing's changed.

Level whatever

I’m honestly not entirely sure how I feel about the way that the Demon Hunter talent trees are structured. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense for the seventh tier not to unlock until level 110; unlocking everything when you’ve barely had five minutes to play the class feels a bit hollow. On the other hand, the fact that talent trees suddenly work differently just for Demon Hunters creates a feeling of disconnect. Then again, at least they get something for hitting the upper levels.

I had mentioned before that the leveling feels a bit slow, but upon further reflection, I think the real reason for that is less because it’s the slowest thing ever and more because levels are functionally irrelevant except for stats. There are no abilities waiting, and there’s no big reward at the end; it’s just a number you make go higher, and your stats increase but your character is pretty much only changed via the artifact. I mentioned just last week that I would have more faith in the game’s mechanical changes sticking around if the level cap had remained the same but the artifact leveling were in place; the designers appear to have done this in practical terms while still retaining the levels, the worst of both worlds.

As a result, play feels a bit same-y as you progress through the levels. It helps that the core rotations and setups for the various specs are very satisfying, but I can only imagine it’s going to be more pronounced for new characters chewing through the levels. One level fades into another pretty easily, and without even mandatory zone changes the climb to 110 feels largely vestigial.

One thing I am fond of is how the game is handling its storytelling this time around. Warlords of Draenor had a particular investment in making you out to be the hero of the ages, which made a certain amount of sense but could still be a bit annoying. Even with the whole class order thing in this expansion, my feeling through most of the zones has generally been that you’re important without being overwhelmingly so; there are things in motion that don’t involve you, factional moves and trials that you are only peripherally involved with.

Feedback, as always, is welcome in the comments down below or via mail to Next time around, I want to talk about Garrisons and how they’re not half as bad as people think – but they’re also very much a product of their environment.

War never changes, but World of Warcraft does, with a decade of history and a huge footprint in the MMORPG industry. Join Eliot Lefebvre each week for a new installment of WoW Factor as he examines the enormous MMO, how it interacts with the larger world of online gaming, and what’s new in the worlds of Azeroth and Draenor.
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