I’ve talked about the virtues of playing games you don’t think you’ll enjoy. I think it’s absolutely critical to being a good game designer and why I think that as a game player it helps to keep your horizons broad and not tunnel-vision on increasingly specific game types until you connoisseur yourself out of having any games to play. I have a policy of playing games that other people like that I don’t think I’m going to enjoy, and it’s one I take very seriously.
I got a lot of surprised comments when I started playing World of Warcraft again for the expansion. I found it somewhat amusing but also kind of depressing how frequently my last post about WoW earlier this week was reduced to “Tam thinks WoW is terrible”, when the reality is my feelings on the game are extremely complicated. I’ve now hit the new level cap and have gotten a pretty good feel for what the expansion offers, I didn’t want to write about it without having gotten a complete picture.
As a bit of warning, after the next paragraph there’s likely to be spoilers up to early level 110 content in Legion. Skip if you’re concerned about it, per usual.
There’s a thing I’ve discovered in playing WoW and comparing it to other games, that I see in games like FFXIV as well. I was once absolutely enamored of the gear chase, trying to get increasingly better equipment to take on bigger and fancier challenges, to master those and get even greater equipment to pursue yet bigger, fancier challenges, and so on. I’m not interested in it anymore, to the point where I’m actively annoyed most of the time when I get a gear upgrade. This isn’t just WoW, it’s something I’ve noticed in FFXIV as well; I simply don’t have the interest to spend time chasing after gear upgrades. In conversations with Bel, I’ve previously dismissed this as a distaste for random loot drops, but the structure of Legion and how quality gear flows pretty freely through the expansion really put this into perspective for me. It isn’t that random loot drops annoy me, and it isn’t that I don’t like the token grind in FFXIV for gear upgrades– both of those are true, but they aren’t separate. I no longer enjoy gear progression as a primary motivation. I’m actively annoyed when I get a gear upgrade at this point, because the upgrade rarely makes a noticeable difference in my actual play (but if I ignore it, it will) and I usually have to go put some work into not looking like a clown afterwards. The sole time I am excited for a piece of gear is when it looks particularly cool, which is where WoW’s dated graphical fidelity catches up to it– this is extremely, extremely rare for me, so I’m annoyed the vast majority of the time about the gear upgrading process.
So, I’m not playing the game for the gear chase, which means that a lot of the other systems are less than appealing for me. I think the implementation of World Quests and the “bonus” quest content is rather good and kind of a long time in coming– they’re basically Renown Hearts from GW2 tuned for level-cap play rather than levelling play. It’s a good system, and it’s good to see WoW adopt it. World Quests greatly ease the gear chase, which is generally a good thing but not directly appealing to me. I’ve done a handful of dungeons, and I’m finding that they message really poorly, at least from the healer perspective, so sometimes I have groups that take immense amounts of random damage and other times virtually no one takes any damage, with little apparent rhyme or reason. It’s hard to know if I’m doing well or poorly other than the binary “did people die”, and even that is hard to pin on either my own failings or someone else’s. Healing is also focus-intensive enough that I can’t easily zoom out and watch over the fight’s mechanics the way I do in FFXIV. Combat mechanics in general simply don’t interest me in WoW as in other games, I feel like I’ve played them out and other than slight remixes on the same concepts, I’m not going to see anything new.
On the other hand, I’m genuinely interested in some of the narrative of the game. For the first time in years, I can remember what it feels like to care about my character’s personality and place in the game’s setting, because parts of the storytelling are so good that I not only find myself interested in what happens next, but am thinking about myself in the context of that story. It’s the highest praise I can offer to an RPG’s storytelling. There are bad parts, and boring parts, certainly– I am extremely tired of the game giving you no option but to take the quests offered to you and then setting up obvious traps, then laughing at you when you “fall into the trap”. One particularly egregious example was in Stormheim, where a quest for a couple of Tauren turns into a painfully obvious con by a pair of goblins, and there’s literally nothing you can do other than a) ignore the quests, which is really just refusing to play the game or b) go along with their obvious scam until you finish the questline for obviously worthless rewards, one goblin literally says “So long, sucker!” and you get an achievement called, I’m not kidding about this, “What A Ripoff”. It’s supposed to be funny, I’m sure, but it’s a joke at the expense of someone who put time into seeing the story through, which is funny only to the person telling the joke, not the victim of it. It doesn’t really make it better that you get a followup quest (nowhere close to the original chain, and only able to be completed long afterwards), because it serves largely to reopen and salt the wound.
On the other hand, Suramar. The setup for this is great; you’ve spent a bit of time seeing these magic-addicted, twitchy elves without a lot of explanation of their background, except that some are lucid and some have gone completely feral, and that the lucid ones can turn feral if they don’t consume enough magic. It’s an interesting but seemingly throwaway device until you get to Suramar, which opens as a sort of setting-up-the-resistance piece. You’re the outsider, helping a group of these elves rebel against their queen, who’s made some pretty terrible deals with literal devils, but who still retains control over the city. You spend time searching for your contact, dodging or fighting both her pursuers and feral elves, while she uses the last of her magic to find shelter and a base of operations. You help restore her by finding and providing magic powder, a fairly thin metaphor but one that plays well into the rest of the story. Yes, these elves are hopeless addicts, but they’re also competent, intelligent, and capable, and working for a good cause. The addiction is regrettable and always at the forefront but doesn’t define these characters’ personalities; they are more than “just addicts”.
Furthermore, the elves you meet and recruit for this resistance are individually capable and powerful, but don’t steal the show from you. A big problem with a lot of the “helper” characters in WoW is that they’re always, always the ones to ACTUALLY save the day, usually through some kind of deus ex machina. In this case, you play that role, and you get the dual reactions of absolute thankfulness from the people you’re helping as well as a bit of irritation that you’re just swooping in and solving their problems, things that they’ve been working at for a long time. It feels very genuine, it feels very convincing, and it’s a very strong story being told– I would play an entire game and explore an entire setting built around just this premise. It absolutely makes it worth the frustration and annoyance of other parts of the game and other parts of the story (can we please, PLEASE just give up on the whole Alliance vs Horde constant war crimes and idiotic “vengeance” storylines already, not to mention the transparent, awful racism that they get paired with?), and I’m genuinely looking forward to playing more of it and seeing where it goes.
It reminds me, more than a little bit, of my experience with Fallout: New Vegas. I don’t like post-apoc settings, I’ve never gone in much for Fallout, and I played and didn’t really enjoy Fallout 3. FNV *should* have been a “nope, not going to bother” game for me, but I sat down with it anyway. What I found was a game with a really compelling story, a setting that changed my mind somewhat about post-apoc settings, and a bunch of new ideas and inspiration. It’s like Burnout, a racing game I ignored because “I don’t like racing games” until I sat down and tried it and discovered that under the hood (ha!) it was doing something I really enjoyed and found really fun.
I don’t love WoW, Suramar has not made me suddenly love the game again, and it doesn’t change anything about a lot of the other parts I dislike, but I’m glad I’ve gotten back into it and I’m glad I stuck with it enough to see that content. Suramar makes it worth ignoring those other things, because it represents a return to stories I actually care about and really enjoy, and can take seriously, which is what made me love the game in the first place.